Many North Coast wine grapes had been picked before Kincade Fire

The 2019 North Coast wine grape harvest came in for a harrowing landing as the massive Kincade wildfire prompted evacuations of large areas of Sonoma County, but by that time most all the crop around the region was already in winery tanks.

Before the fire sparked Oct. 23 in the Mayacamas range on the eastern edge of Sonoma County's Alexander Valley winegrowing region prized for its cabernet sauvigonon and other red wine grape varieties, about 92% of the county's crop and a lot of that cab already had been picked, according to Karissa Kruse, president of trade group Sonoma County Winegrowers.

'And even between (the start of the fire) and the hard stop (with the evacuation orders on on Oct. 26), growers harvested another 3%. The question is the last 5% in Alexander and Knights valleys with cabernet sauvignon,' she said. 'We already had a few nights of frost, so some of those grapes won't be harvested. We've had curveballs of fighting fires and frost damage on the same night.'

Another big wine grape crop after the record 2018 crop had wine industry experts worried, as the market for excess grapes and wine creeped to a standstill early this year, according to Brian Clements of Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

Wineries crushed 588,864 tons from North Coast vineyards last year, according to the annual crop report. That was up nearly 26% from 2017 and 18.0% above the five-year average. The 2018 California wine grape crop topped 4.281 million tons, up about 7% from 2017 tonnage and the five-year average as well as beating the previous bumper crop of 4.25 million tons in 2013.

At the Chateau Montelena winery in upper Napa Valley, the last of the over 900 tons of grapes picked this year arrived at the winery in mid-October.

'It was a little above average,' said winemaker Matt Crafton. Typically, the vintner brings in 800-900 tons in a given harvest (producing 35,000-50,000 cases of wine annually) from four sites in Napa Valley and one with riesling grapes from Mendocino County's Potter Valley. 'Mostly, it was because berry size was up this year, versus berry or cluster count.'

Those are common rules of thumb for estimating the size of the wine grape crop early in the season, but a number of season factors such as uneven self-pollination, high heat that shrivels berries or late-season irrigation that swells the berries can affect the total crop.

'The wet spring drove larger berries in general,' Crafton said.

'We're really excited about what we're tasting in the tanks,' Crafton said. 'As for the fire and blackout, people should know that Calistoga is open.'

Chateau Montelena had two remaining tanks of juice in contact with grape skins to extract tannins and color went into the presses on Oct. 30, even as the Calistoga vintner was closed to the public three days under an evacuation advisory, according to Crafton.

The property opened to the public the following morning, as it became clear that the advisory would be lifted that afternoon and winds were blowing smoke from the Kincade Fire mostly out of the valley, he said.

With a large North Coast fire back in the headlines and on television screens around the world for the third year in a row, tourism and wine industry boosters in Sonoma County huddled last week to talk how to promote Wine Country. One message they settled on was the character of the people of Wine Country that makes it an attractive place to visit, Kruse said.

"It's about inviting them to come back and experience this special place," she said. "And if they can't make it here, they can sip Sonoma County wherever they are. That's how they can help us."

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