'We've done 25% of our harvest in the past six days'

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North Coast winegrape growers late last week were looking forward to a few warm, breezy days to dry out the remaining grapes on the vine and close out what has been a surprising, challenging season in terms of weather and economics.

Unexpected early-season weather dramatically reduced the crop size from well above five-year averages in projections based on the fast start to the vine, with aggressive crop thinning based on those estimates also a major factor, according to viticulture trade groups. The first state report on winegrape tonnage is set to be released in early February. Yet tonnage for most North Coast varieties likely will be in line with yields in 2006 through last year.

However, tonnage for Russian River Valley pinot noir is 20 percent to 30 percent below average and in line with the small crop from last year, according to Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

The moderate temperatures with just a few heat spikes during the season resulted in grape maturation that looks encouraging for 2009 vintage quality, according to some winemakers.

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"There's good color with a lot of red and nice flavor development," said Paul Ahvenainen of Korbel.

Most of the 2009 harvest has been characterized as steady and methodical because of the relatively cool weather.

Yet two to five inches of rain on Oct. 13 followed near-freezing temperatures in a number of North Coast areas the week before and several 90- and 100-degree days in late September. That sped up ripening for many thin-skinned grape varieties susceptible to bursting from rain, encouraging rot. Most of the North Coast chardonnay and pinot noir grapes have been picked, but some zinfandel and petite sirah remain on the vine.

"If the weather breaks and holds, in two weeks we'll be done," said Mr. Frey, noting forecasts for warm days. "I'm sure everyone will be happy to close the book on 2009 and hope 2010 will be better."

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Jackson Family Wines, which has 40 coastal brands produced from nearly a dozen facilities, also is expecting to finish picking by November after a day-and-night push to harvest as much fruit as possible before the storm, according to Randy Ullom, winemaster. The Santa Rosa-based company hardly had any grapes on the vine in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties by the time the storm arrived.

"We've done 25 percent of our harvest in the past six days," Mr. Ullom said as the rain was pouring down Oct. 13. "We could have gone faster, but we did not want to go so fast that we were picking unripe grapes."

Jackson owns 80 percent of its vines and has three-year "evergreen" contracts on virtually all of the rest. That amount of control allowed for multiple passes through the rows to cut off undeveloped clusters as early-season yield forecasts were suggesting big crops, and some matured grapes were "dropped" too to reduce future inventory.

"If there was ever a year to do it, this is the year," Mr. Ullom said.

In the North Coast, 95 percent of the Jackson acreage is on well-draining mountainsides and benches, allowing workers and equipment to get back to picking quickly, according to Mr. Ullom.

"The rain shouldn’t hurt the crop unless it drags on for days and days," wrote David Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards in an Oct. 13 post on Napa Valley Grapegrowers' Twitter page. "Cabs have thick skins and handle moisture better."

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In the grape market, the slowdown in sales of wines retailing for more than $20 a bottle led to a backup in wine inventory through the sales chain, leading to challenges for the 10 percent to 30 percent of North Coast winegrape tonnage sold under short-term contracts, according to Brian Clements, senior partner and winegrape broker of Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. Most North Coast grapes are sold under multiyear contracts.

After brisk contracting late last year for 2009 "spot market" fruit, sales activity waned early this year, according to Mr. Clements.

"From the end of January until now, spot-market prices have continued to fall," he said. "Buyers are cautious because of cash flow and credit lines."

For example, spot market Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon was fetching $4,000 a ton, but now what deals are transacting are for an average of $1,000 a ton. Sonoma County chardonnay was commanding $1,000 a ton, but at harvest it was $500 a ton. Pinot noir was getting $3,700 a ton, but now it's $1,700 a ton.

"It will be seen how much the credit crunch affects payment schedules," Mr. Frey noted. Usually growers get paid 30 to 45 days after grape delivery, but some take split payments with part after harvest and the rest in January after holiday wine sales. "Some wineries have asked for extended payments."