It's been a crazy year for table grape growers in Kern County and beyond.
Rain, hail and unseasonably cold weather in May conspired to delay the grape harvest — from Coachella in Southern California to Arvin in southern Kern. Local growers say last month's damaging hail could reduce their yields, but that the damage was spotty, depending on vineyard locations.
And now, as if all that weren't enough, extreme heat has the potential to stress the grapes further.
"It's been a very tough, unusual year," said Mark Hall of Grapevine Vineyards, located in the Wheeler Ridge area south of Bakersfield.
"Some people got hammered. I got missed," he said of the hail storms.
Thursday morning, in a vineyard near East Panama and Rock Pile roads not far from Arvin, Domenick Buck of Bakersfield-based Anthony Vineyards led a reporter and photographer through the thick canopy of one of the earliest organic vineyards in the General Beale agricultural area.
"We started harvesting on June 26 last year," Buck said. This year, picking is not likely to start until early July.
"This warm weather may speed things up," he said, "but we are definitely behind where we were last year."
The rain and mud in May made it difficult to send workers or tractors into the vineyards. But on Thursday, dozens of field workers were culling damaged fruit, pulling leaves from around grape bunches and thinning vines of excess produce.
"It's very labor-intensive," Buck said. And expensive.
He estimated it will cost more than $3 per vine to catch up to where they want to be in vineyard care. At 92,000 vines, that's a lot of juice.
But growers have little choice. If left untended, hail-damaged grapes will split as they mature, inviting mildew and rot, which will then spread to other grapes.
Donald Luvisi, a Kern County farm advisor emeritus who retired from the UC Cooperative Extension in 1999, still keeps his hand in grape production, and owns a wine grape vineyard near Calistoga in Napa Valley.
The viticulture specialist said he's not surprised that harvests in Southern and Central California are being delayed, but he's not too concerned about it.
The big concern is rot, such as botrytis and similar diseases that commonly infect the grape tissue through injuries in the skin.
"When the grapes reach sugar, it can wipe out the whole bunch," Luvisi said.
The California Table Grape Commission estimated this year’s crop would come in at 116.2 million boxes, slightly higher than last year’s total. But that estimate was made in April, before May surprised everyone.
Until the harvest comes in, it remains difficult to determine whether the cold May and the resulting delays will have a significant impact on the price consumers pay at the register.
John Harley, vice president of marketing at Anthony Vineyards, said the damage from hail will have an effect. But only on those growers unlucky enough to be in the path of those storms.
"It's not going to greatly diminish the overall crop," he said. "It will lighten the numbers, but yield will still be good overall. And quality looks to be good."
The size of the crop can be a double-edged sword, and bigger is not always better. A bumper crop means growers can drop their lesser-quality fruit and still have plenty of quality produce to market to consumers. But a glut of fruit may mean lower prices for growers.
Hall at Grapevine Vineyards said the table grape crop from Mexico to Fresno was expected to be large, which had the potential to depress market prices. In that sense, the Mad May may have come with a silver lining.
"Maybe we needed some problems like this," he said, "to make a market."