Warm weather ripens winegrape season outlook

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.

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