Just-drinks' series of wine harvest reports continues with updates on the 2004 vintages in the US wine regions of California and Washington.

CALIFORNIA

California's warm spring got vines off to a fast start; several months of cooler weather followed before a series of late-summer heat spells brought the season to a quick conclusion. Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group, reported the earliest harvest in a decade, while the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley said many of its members ran three to four weeks ahead of normal.

"It was a strange, early spring, but cool summer weather allowed grapes to hang on the vine and develop character," said Jerry Widing, assistant winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in the Dry Creek region of northern Sonoma County.

While final harvest figures won't be available until February, the California Agricultural Statistics Service in July forecast 2004 yields would fall slightly to 2.9m tons from 473,000 acres.

Kendall-Jackson, which has vineyards in the coastal regions of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties, reported a 5% decline in the tonnage-per-acre totals due to fewer vine shoots and grape clusters per shoot. "Yields have been down slightly to moderately, and the quality of the grapes has been excellent," Diageo Chateau & Estates said of its Beaulieu and Sterling wineries in Napa Valley.

The decrease follows several years of overproduction and low prices, both of which prompted growers to reduce acreage and slow new plantings, but it is also partly due to this season's weather.

"Wine grape growing conditions in California over the past year have contributed to this year's early harvest and lighter volume," said Richard Sands, Constellation Brands' president and CEO. That is likely to result in firmer grape prices and, eventually, less
retail discounting. Still, it's not all bad news for wine lovers. "This year's California harvest is yielding a quality wine grape crop, and we believe our consumers will experience an excellent vintage," Sands said.

"It may be a bit early to make a pronouncement, but 2004 may go down as one of the best vintages on record," said Kendall-Jackson winemaster, Randy Ullom.

WASHINGTON

According to the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG), the state's 2004 crop will weigh in at nearly 108,300 tons, slightly below the 111,700-ton harvest recorded in 2003. Winter damage affected vines in certain areas across the state, but the WAWGG said the shortfall will be offset by new vineyards coming into production.

More red wine grape acreage is expected to come into production this year making the ratio between red and white production nearly 50/50. The state's most widely planted red wine varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

Warm temperatures early on in the growing season indicated early maturity and an earlier harvest. Viticulturists across the state reported small berry size, a key indicator of concentrated, quality fruit. "We're positioned for a quality harvest," said Ted Wildman, owner of Stone Tree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope, and Washington Wine Commissioner. "I'm particularly optimistic about the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon in my vineyards."

The cold weather in the winter only affected certain regions. "The vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley did experience cold setbacks in October and January," said Norm McKibben, partner in Pepper Bridge Vineyard, Seven Hills Vineyard and Les Collines Vineyard. "Other Columbia Valley vineyards have been good neighbours offering the Walla Walla Valley wineries high quality fruit. As a result, wine production in Valley will be close to the same in both quantity and quality."

Other areas of the state were less affected by winter damage and report a good year in the making. "It's been a hot year and the Yakima Valley historically does well in warm years," said Brenton Roy, owner of Oasis Vineyards in the Yakima Valley. "The winter damage was less severe in the Yakima Valley. We're looking at more uniformity and little crop thinning for a good year."

Washington's wine industry continues to grow. It is now ranked as the state's fourth largest fruit crop and Washington is now the second largest wine growing region in the US. The wine industry is a US$2.4 billion business with more than 275 wineries and 300 wine grape growers.