From historic wildfires to the unprecedented effects of a global pandemic, 2020 had many surprises in store for grape growers. We’re looking back on an eventful year with industry leaders who’ve had a front-row seat. 

In this interview, we’ll hear from Peter Vallis, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association since 2008.

What notable events affected vineyards in 2020?

Without a doubt the fires have caused the single biggest hit in the grape world for the entire west coast. Naturally, the change in the market exports have also had an impact—but the fires have been devastating.

Smoke taint is less of an issue in the San Joaquin Valley, because the fires weren’t right on top of the vineyards. But for about a month, the smoke cover acted as a cloud and blocked the sun rays from getting to the plants—so it set the plants behind on growth and maturity, while affecting the sugar content of the grapes. Some vineyards caught up, but some did not. There are scores of vineyards all over California that did not get harvested because of the smoke.  

How did growers adjust their management strategies to deal with COVID-19?

The entire industry has had to change the way we operate to keep workers safe from contracting COVID. Most of the high-dollar fruit and vegetable crops are dealing with massive amounts of people to harvest all year long, so they have had a harder time managing the challenges of the pandemic than the grape industry.

california summer vineyard rows

Many farm workers have worn masks for years to keep the dust out of their face, so that was less of an issue. At the large wineries, the employees take turns working to spread out the workforce, and managing the employees' safety to be able to work. I am proud of the industry for how they have adjusted.

Given the impact of these events, what distinguishes the growers who’ve been able to keep their businesses healthy?

There wasn’t time to innovate or adapt with the fires that popped up so quickly. Labor Day weekend, it was gorgeous—then all of the sudden it was a blazing inferno. It will all shake out, and eventually we will know who was in a good place before the devastation started. 

This year, being diversified with other crops and harvesting at different times has kept some growers afloat. Wine distribution to the consumer was drastically changed. The brands that have really soared during the pandemic have been the grocery store chains and branded home name brands. The brands that were working with restaurants still have extra supply.  In Europe, 50% of the wine sold is through tourism and restaurants, so they are hurting as well, without the tourism and bars being open. 

The best farmers have cut nonessential costs—maybe didn’t buy a new tractor this year—but have taken care of the soil and the plants and have pushed on for when the markets change to a more positive outlook.

What trends or changes have you noticed when it comes to irrigation management?

It was a hot, dry year, so if you weren’t managing your irrigation carefully, the grapes would dry up. Irrigation is going to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind for 2021, after being in deficit after the 2020 drought. Salt content in the water is becoming a problem because of the drip irrigation—it doesn’t flush the soil like flood irrigation used to flush the soil.

We saw more and more use of imagery technology, based on evapotranspiration, that helps growers make decisions about how much water is being used and what is needed. Changes in nitrogen use regulations are prompting farmers to make strategic changes in their fertigation strategies.

As technology changes, there will be more training required—growers will have to be able to run the technology and run a shovel all at the same time. You'll need to be able to read the data and still have the common sense to see with your own eyes that something is wrong when ground-truthing the crops. 

Want another take on the year? Read more from Vicky Sharlau of the Washington Winegrowers   or Max Jehle of Max Ag Consultants

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