Based on anecdotal reports and preliminary counts, the wine grape harvest of 2012 — which began in August and is due to be complete any day now — might be a record-setter for Santa Barbara County, as growers from Happy Canyon to the Sta. Rita Hills have been reporting both impressive quantity and quality thanks to mild, fruit-friendly weather throughout the year. That’s welcome news after two years of weaker yields, when harsh rains and winds knocked down the county’s crop, and, according to Jim Fiolek of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, is reminiscent of 1997, which critics lauded as one of the best vintages of that decade. The yield has driven grape prices down somewhat, and Fiolek said that consumers can expect to see some of those savings down the road.
Though the picking of fruit is what symbolizes harvest, that activity — usually carried out in the dark, early morning hours, often by crews of seasonal day laborers — is only the first step in the process of turning those grapes into wine. Next comes sorting and cleaning of the grapes, which can be done by hand or with a device called a de-stemmer (as seen above at Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley), and then the grapes for white wines are pressed while the reds sit on their skins and sometimes even their stems in fermenter bins. They are checked daily for sugar levels (seen above right at Ampelos Cellars in Lompoc) until fermentation is complete, when they, too, are pressed and put into barrels.
But as that sequence winds down around Santa Barbara’s wine country, another process is ramping up: the updating of the county’s winery ordinance, which dictates exactly what kinds of wineries can be developed and how. Three months ago in Buellton, at the introductory meeting for the ongoing, Board of Supervisors–requested revision process, about 200 wine-industry proponents rallied against more restrictions in what this paper described as a “love fest.” But those who want more oversight on wineries due to concerns over neighborhood compatibility, drunk driving, and other issues were overwhelmed and intimidated that evening, choosing instead to put their comments in writing rather than speak them aloud.
This past Tuesday, the next step of the update ensued in the Board of Supervisors conference room in downtown Santa Barbara, where about 40 people showed up to the first in a series of topic-based meetings designed to let the county learn more about the issues at play as they determine what changes are needed. This meeting was about tasting rooms, and, after some confusion and critiques about the process — as the wine industry folks remain unsure why there is an update at all, saying they’ve never been told what the specific problems are — there was some genuine progress made. Not only was there a tiny bit of warming between the wine-industry advocates and the few, outnumbered wine-country neighbors who showed up to voice their concerns, but the wine folks also started to realize that this process, if handled well, might actually benefit their needs, as well.
The next meeting in that process is on December 13, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m., at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton, and will focus on food service at wineries and tasting rooms.