As the earliest-ripening North Coast winegrapes barely enter the home stretch for the season, the 2013 crop is expected to start coming in to wineries a few weeks earlier than normal, possibly be smaller than the record-setting 2012 crop yet seemingly welcomed with a bit more tepid though active buying activity than last year.
Winemakers, growers and brokers are even more reluctant to make detailed projections of crop size at this point of the season than they usually are, given the surprise bounty of the 2012 crop. Yet what they see so far is putting smiles on their faces, though with more pause than last year, because of more challenging weather and operational conditions plus a much larger supply of excess 2012 wine available for sale in bulk.
[caption id="attachment_77014" align="alignleft" width="162"] Melissa Stackhouse[/caption]
"We are set up for an amazing vintage -- beautiful weather during winter and spring," said Melissa Stackhouse, vice president of winemaking for J Vineyards & Winery, a sparkling and table wine producer in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. "A couple weather events in past weeks -- a bit of rain and an eight-day stretch of extremely hot temperatures -- had us scratching our heads, but overall, the future of this particular harvest looks bright"
Veraison -- the change in color of grape berries that signals ripening -- came to J's 250 acres of Russian River Valley vines first in the pinot noir-focused Nicole's Vineyard on July 7. By mid-July veraison was noticeable in most of the producer's vineyards.
That has winemaker Melissa Stackhouse estimating that if the weather remains warm and dry, harvest of lower-sugar grapes bound for sparkling wines could begin in early to mid-August. Generally, maturity of North Coast grapevines are one to three weeks ahead of normal, experts say.
Yet the tedious task of estimating crop size has just begun. Prices for bulk wine have moderated, particularly for Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, which was in the high $40-a-gallon range at this time last year and now is in the high $20 range, according to brokers. As wineries look to make room for 2013 grapes, more wine in bulk from 2012 is expected to come on the market as harvest approaches.
[caption id="attachment_77015" align="alignleft" width="160"] Glenn Proctor[/caption]
Based on the number of clusters on the vines and the size of the grape berries at this point, it appears that North Coast tonnage will be largely "average" to "average-plus," meaning in line with several-year averages, according to Glenn Proctor of San Rafael-based grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co. In some cases, there are more than the two clusters per vine shoot seen in the 2012 crop, yet growers are reporting berry sizes that are smaller than what was typical last year.
"We do not see a humongous crop on the vine," Mr. Proctor said.
Like a number of wineries that encountered wine storage problems as grapes kept coming in during the 2012 harvest, J is adjusting its storage arrangement to prepare for more grapes as well as growing brands. The winery has purchased new barrels and added insulation and refrigeration to outside blending tanks, with the intent of using the tanks for preblending this year, rather than having to "rack" wine back and forth from the tanks, as what happened last harvest, according to Martin Guzman, production director.