NORTH COAST - As the 2009 North Coast winegrape harvest begins, growers are estimating the size of the crop will be in line with multiyear averages or up to 10 percent below average because of mild weather throughout the season, though yields for some major varieties appear to be lower.

North Coast tonnage fell about 19 percent last year, largely because of about a month of early-season frost. Sonoma County winegrape crop decreased 15 percent last year to 169,000 tons from 2007, and estimates call for 2009 tonnage to be around the 2007 tonnage of 200,000. The 2008 Napa County harvest was 20 percent lighter than the 145,000 tons of 2007.

The lack of much frost this year, combined with fewer hot days for the third straight year have produced the makings of a quality vintage, winemakers report. However, an extended bloom time with inclement weather have caused smaller crop sizes in certain areas.

Pricing for fruit not already under contract is expected to be lower than the record per-ton prices in Napa and Sonoma counties last year because of the weak economy. But those prices reflected deal-making before late 2007, which predated signs of the economic downturn, according to grape-market experts.

"The vast majority of Napa Valley grapes are already in long-term contracts done two to three years ago," said Jon Ruel, director of viticulture and winemaking for mid-valley Trefethen Family Vineyards.

Producers of sparkling wine started receiving the first winegrapes of the season in early August. Gloria-Ferrer in Sonoma Valley brought in the first blocks on Aug. 10, followed by Mumm Napa on Aug. 18.

Picking and grape development is about one to two weeks behind historical norms, depending on the grape variety and winegrowing region microclimate. For example, growers in the warmer regions of Napa Valley at this point are expecting to start bringing in the white varieties such as chardonnay for table wine in the first weeks of September.