Smaller Sonoma crop half in; ‘the vines know we’re at the end’The stretch of hot weather in the first half of October brightened the outlook of North Coast winegrape growers that had been anxiously waiting for their grapes to ripen in a long, cool season punctuated with spring frost and showers and a few fall days of ill-timed sizzling temperatures followed by rain.

Temperatures in the 90s and around 100 in early October kick-started the 2010 North Coast harvest, delayed by two to four weeks by cool and damp days throughout much of the season.

"It's almost but not quite the end of one of the most difficult seasons on record, with wet weather, mold and mildew, sunburn and a bad [grape] market," said Brian Clements, partner of Turrentine Brokerage in Novato.

If the remaining days of October are warm and dry, North Coast growers hope to get the majority of their crops to wineries by early next month.

“Sugars are coming up for the crops, but there is a bit of dehydration going on,” said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. “The vines know we’re at the end of the season.”

Picking in Sonoma County was about half-complete by last Wednesday, a big improvement from around 20 percent done at the beginning of the week, according to Mr. Frey. Much of the cabernet sauvignon crop and other later-maturing varieties are still on vines in the county.

“It’s going at a good pace,” he said. “This weather is about ideal.”

The current projection is a crop of less than 180,000 tons this year in Sonoma County. That would be below last year's ample 211,000 tons but above the frost-hit 169,000-ton 2008 crop and below the 198,000-ton 2007 crop.

Jackson Family Wines is about 25 percent complete with the 2010 harvest, according to a spokeswoman.

The company often is half to two-thirds done with picking by this point in a season, according to Randy Ullom, winemaster for Kendall-Jackson. The best assessment of crop size is what chardonnay has been brought in so far.

"When you're talking about hang time, we have great hang time this year," Mr. Ullom. "Although some grapes got hit with sunburn, flavor development overall is great. I have not seen any color or fermentation issues to date."

Zinfandel and chardonnay in the county were the hardest-hit by the three days of 100-degree temperatures in late August after months of cool temperature "sunburned" grapes left exposed by leaf pulling to spur grape development and prevent mildew.

At this point, 30 percent of the zinfandel crop and up to 10 percent of chardonnay appears to have been damaged, according to grape experts.

Yet, hotter weather recently has dried out chardonnay clusters and reduced the anticipated level of rot in the crop, according to Mr. Frey.

The readiness of the Jackson's North Coast vineyards for harvest is ahead of those in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. In typically lagging vineyards in Mendocino County, zinfandel grapes are starting to come in, but about half of the grapes are still two to three weeks away from being ready, Mr. Ullom said.

Estimates early this month of the size of the Napa County crop put the 2010 crop at 10 percent to 20 percent below last year’s 141,000-ton harvest, according to Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

Frost damage in 2008 cut that year's tonnage by 20 percent to nearly 116,000 tons.

“Growers are transporting a lot of night picks right now,” Ms. Putnam said on Tuesday. “We might see a slowdown later this week and then another wave of fruit ripening in a week to 10 days.”

Picking of cabernet sauvignon grapes from the Napa Valley floor started recently, but the last cab and syrah isn’t expected to come in from hillside vineyards until mid-November, he said.

While Napa and Sonoma suffered from fog and sunburn, Lake County's season has been "uneventful," according to Shannon Gunier, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.

With most of the white grape varieties off the vine and picking for the majority of cab set to begin in earnest this week or next, growers in the county still have a lot of grapes to sell, she said. Grapes from Lake County have struggled to get the price premiums of Napa and Sonoma counties and Anderson Valley pinot noir in Mendocino County.

"We kind of hope that we could be in a better place than most, because we're targeting Napa wineries that need to produce a $20 cab," Ms. Gunier said. "We spent so many years trying not to be the blend, but it doesn't matter now."

Also good news for North Coast winegrape growers are early signs of success in fighting back against infestations of the European grapevine moth. From the first finds in the U.S. of the grape-gutting pest in Oakville in September 2009, concerted control and trapping programs spread from Napa County to Sonoma, Mendocino, Solano and a couple of other counties in the state.

"It's the first pest that actually attacked the product," said Ms. Putnam of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

At one point there were about 100,000 moths trapped in worst-hit Napa County, according to Ms. Putnam. But by the time the third generation had taken flight this season, less than 100 were trapped.

In Sonoma County, new finds also are dwindling to a few here and there, according to Mr. Frey. There were 58 moth finds all year.