After three straight years of harvests delayed and reduced by unwelcome weather, North Coast winegrape growers see signs of brighter prospects for a 2012 crop that could be, thankfully, average-sized and on time.

"We show up in the vineyards with smiles these days," said Mark Neal, president of St. Helena-base vineyard management company Jack Neal & Son. The company farms 1,000 acres mostly in Napa Valley.

[caption id="attachment_58257" align="alignleft" width="224" caption="Verasion was visible in one berry of a cabernet sauvignon winegrape cluster last week. (credit: Kendall-Jackson)"][/caption]Thanks to warmer, drier weather than last year, the important stage of grape development when berries change color -- called verasion -- has arrived in some clusters and may be in full swing by the beginning of August, according to growers.

"That it is starting now is a good sign of an early harvest," said Sam Turner of St. Helena-based T&M Ag Services. He manages about 900 acres of mostly cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel vines throughout Napa Valley and on Mount Veeder for 24 clients.

Buds emerged from vines later in some areas this year, but development has caught up to historical norms with warmer temperatures. The number of growing degree-days -- the accumulated number of days in a season when average daily temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and below 86 degrees -- so far this year is well ahead of the same pace last year in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, according to growers.

If the trend of more warm days than last year holds, some growers think harvest for white table wine grapes could start in the warmest parts of the North Coast before Labor Day, with picking for lower-sugar grapes for sparkling wines starting a few weeks earlier. Growers with red table wine grapes are hoping the trend suggests picking will get under way in the third week of September and end before rains historically arrive in October.

"If it starts early, we'll be able to get a lot of fruit off the vines before it gets more tricky for grapes to be still out there," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

Though the average number of grape clusters per vine is fewer than normal for certain varieties, clusters are tending to be more massive, suggesting crop size could be in line with or above multiyear averages.

"We have not had to do much thinning," said Julie Nord, an owner of Napa-based Nord Vineyard Services, which farms about 900 acres in 18 sites from Pope Valley to Carneros and in Cloverdale. "We have used less fertilizer than we have in past years, and we are not seeing many deficiencies."

The 2012 could be the first "normal" crop size for Mendocino County since 2007, because of the wildfire smoke taint and frost of 2008 followed by cooler and wet seasons in the following three years, according to Dave Koball, vineyard director for Fetzer Vineyards, which farms 915 acres in Ukiah Valley and the Hopland area for the Bonterra label.

"Last year, we had to cut off a lot of fruit because it was so late and so cool," he said.

Early indications of a weightier crop are good news, considering North Coast winegrape tonnage last year was 22 percent below the also lighter-weight 2010 harvest, which crushed grower revenues by 7 percent, despite mostly higher prices per ton. The 2012 Sonoma County crop is sizing up to possibly be in the 200,000-ton range, according to Mr. Frey, and that would be a vast improvement from 166,000 tons crushed in the county last year.

"Not only does the quality look good but the quantity looks average to above average," said Mr. Turner.

Grower returns per acre could be much better this year, based on higher pricing in recent months, according to Glenn Proctor, partner of San Rafael-based wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co. Because the supply of grapes available for purchase under short-term contracts has dwindled statewide, vintners are scouting vineyards in Mendocino and Lake counties for grapes to keep costs under control or raise the quality of brands.

"Some are trading down, such as a Napa program going to Lake or a Napa cab program going to California grapes," he said. "Some in Napa and Sonoma are going to Lake and Mendocino fruit to lower costs, and some in the Central Valley are looking to Lake and Mendocino to supply coastal programs. We will see increasing prices on the spot market for Lake and Mendocino."

Worrying some North Coast growers is potential for labor shortages, as the number of available farmworkers has thinned since the recession.

Fetzer increased its hourly pay slightly this spring and pared the size of its vineyard workforce and varying the number of hours and days per week they are working to a level they can be kept employed throughout the season, rather than bringing workers on and letting them go after certain phases, according to Mr. Koball.

"Like everybody else, we have to look at our costs and what is more sustainable on the business front," he said. "We found that as we dropped the number of hand harvest crews we could have them work more consistently."

Fetzer and other growers in Mendocino and Lake counties have the advantage over growers in Napa and Sonoma counties in that the pear harvest -- targeted to start Aug. 5 -- falls between the time for vine leaf removal and trellis wire work and the anticipated start of picking for sauvignon blanc in the last week of August or the first week of September, according to Mr. Koball. Fetzer has developed a stable working relationship over the past three years with labor contractors from the Central Valley to allow crews to move from grapes to pears and back to grapes without leaving the area.

To supplement the ebb and flow of vineyard labor, Fetzer operates mechanized prepruning, leaf-removal and harvesting equipment. This year, 4,000 sheep in three flocks led by Robert Irwin have been keeping the rows mowed.

At Nord Vineyard Services, the company has been concerned about harvest help, according to Ms. Nord.

"Usually, we have a couple-week layoff before harvest, but we're worried about laying anyone off before harvest, because we may not get them back," she said.

So the company has rented a leaf-removal machine from a neighboring grower, the first year Nord has used one, and plans to buy one next year. The company also has talked with Jack Neal & Son about the possibility of getting more time on its two mechanical harvesters this year, as the prospects look like such help may be needed on more than 100 acres this year.

Previously, mechanical picking was employed on just 10-acre vineyards here and there, she said.