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Hot summer makes jam of peach, grape harvests

By Dave Buchanan

PALISADE – Well before memories fade of the 44th annual Palisade Peach Festival, another fruit crop is waiting its turn in the sun.

Or maybe that should read its turn in the smoky haze, which one grape grower theorized slowed photosynthesis enough to prevent the weekend from becoming a major Peach Fest jam of workers, equipment and space.

By now, every backyard gardener in the Grand Valley knows any plant producing a fruit or vegetable is taking the short route to ripeness this year, and wine grapes are no different. Some of the earliest-ripening white-wine grapes – chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Riesling and Muscat blanc, among them – are ready earlier than usual this year and a few red-wine varietals aren’t far off.

“It’s certainly early,” agreed state enologist Steve Menke of Colorado State University, talking while driving en route to a meeting. “It’s at least two weeks ahead for some varieties and as much as four weeks for others."

Naomi Smith of Grande River Vineyards said crews there were custom-picking sauvignon blanc Monday to meet a customer’s request.

“We may be picking more later this week but I want our acid levels to go down a little bit for our own varieties,” Smith said.

Winemaker Jenne Baldwin-Eaton at Plum Creek Cellars she had crews picking chardonnay Monday and was looking at sauvignon blanc by week’s end.

“This is the earliest in 19 years I’ve started picking grapes,” she said. “But the brix (sugar levels) are up where I want them and there is a lot of nice acidity, so it’s time to pick.”

First, though, she waited for peach growers to finish using the bins also used to harvest grapes. “Normally, grapes and peaches don’t come in the same weekend so we’re in the thick of it right now,” she said.

John Behr at Whitewater Hill Vineyards said he will start picking Muscat blanc this week while grape and peach grower Neal Guard at Avant Winery already has some early chardonnay fermenting for some private-batch sparkling wines.

“You don’t want the brix too high, you want the acidity,” said Guard of that early harvest.

Jenne Baldwin-Eaton said in most years, Labor Day marks the start of the grape harvest but this year is much different.

“We’ve been spoiled the last couple of years because we didn’t have much picked before (Colorado Mountain) Winefest,” she said. “This year, we’ll probably be halfway through picking when Winefest comes around.”

Guard, who was busy Monday helping a crew of workers make its final pass through his peach orchard, said this year’s confluence of peaches and grapes is making a grower’s life a little hectic.

“This is the last of the peaches and then we’ll start right away on grapes,” said Guard. “It’s crazy this year.”

Because of the cost and seasonal nature, there simply aren’t enough workers or equipment available to harvest grapes and peaches simultaneously. Even now, tractors, fruit trailers, coolers and the skilled workers are shifting from orchard to vineyards as one harvest slows and the other gains momentum.

“There is the optimal time to pick and then there is the optimal time when you have the equipment available,” said Menke, knowing growers share hiw view. “Unfortunately, those times don’t always coincide.”

Plus, said Baldwin-Eaton, the crush of visitors attending Peach Fest also visit the area’s wineries, making them busier than usual. “Peach Fest is getting to be as busy as the Winefest as far as tasting room traffic goes,” Baldwin-Eaton said.

The 21st annual Colorado Mountain Winefest is Sept. 13-16. Information and tickets here.

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