North Coast grape harvest expected to come with lighter yield than average
The North Coast wine grape harvest will kick off within weeks with a crop that is likely to yield amounts below the historical average in part to cooler spring weather that affected some varieties, according to analysts and vintners.
That’s evident over at Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa as owner Kathleen Inman said she predicts her crop will be down about 20% from average.
The decrease is a result of a spring frost while the vines were undergoing bloom. She has 8 acres of planted vines though not all are protected with sprinklers, which can coat the vines with ice that keeps the buds at constant 32 degrees and prevent damage.
“I’m reckoning that at least a ton an acre (loss). It’s probably about 9 tons less fruit, which is significant when you are small,” Inman said of her estate vineyards that consist of pinot noir and pinot gris grapes. “But what I have looks lovely.”
The spring frost and accompanying rains during bloom are likely to have an effect on the industry, which is a significant driver of the local and regional economy. Last year’s crop, for instance, pulled in $1.4 billion in value for the counties of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Marin.
The 2021 yield was down about 15% from the 10-year average of 477,327 tons for the region that is considered the country’s best growing spot. That smaller yield last year followed the brutal 2020 harvest, which was plagued by wildfires and was the lowest tonnage in about 20 years.
“Everyone is reporting that harvest is going to be better this year, but it is not going to be a barn burner,” said Christian Klier, a grape broker with Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. “We are not breaking any records this year. But coming off a short crop last year, people are in better spirits.”
The effect of the spring weather was not uniform as yields are heavily dependent on where the vineyard is located and what variety is being grown.
For example, there have been reports in Sonoma and Napa counties of cabernet sauvignon experiencing “shatter,” the term for when the grapevine’s fragile flowers do not pollinate and develop into grapes, Klier said. Merlot also has been affected.
The harvest typically kicks off in early August with grapes picked for sparkling wine and can go into early November for late red varietals, depending on the weather.
Heat spikes can speed up winemakers’ calls for picks, while more temperate conditions allow them more time to dial in the call and let the fruit hang on the vine.
Growers and wineries are grappling with issues that have lingered in recent years, such as attracting workers in a tight labor market and water use within drought conditions. The latter has again been a major concern as state water regulators, earlier this month, curtailed 331 water rights in the Russian River watershed.
Most growers were proactive over the past year knowing that such curtailments could come. Many took action over the winter, such as recharging their ponds and being more strategic when they irrigated their vines — especially given that there was a lack of rain during the spring, said Tyler Rodrigue, chief executive officer of Ukiah-based Noble Vineyard Management, which farms 1,500 acres in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
“People are definitively better prepared … they are doing a better job,” said Rodrigue, adding those with a scarcity of water will likely experience lower yields.
Like others, Rodrigue is expecting a smaller than typical yield, especially with cabernet sauvignon.
“It’s kind of an average year,” he said. “I don’t see a bumper crop.”
The smaller crops in recent years are not necessarily a bad thing as it has brought the local marketplace much more in balance after the major crops in 2018 and 2019 that left some wineries not renewing contracts and allowing vintners to dictate better pricing terms to farmers. That put smaller growers at a disadvantage.
“The lighter crops also mean you don’t necessarily get the return (on investment) either,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner at Ciatti brokerage in Novato who also has a vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley.
The growth in local acreage has been stable in recent years. Some growers are holding off on replanting to better judge if their investment will deliver sufficient returns in the future, especially given that wine sales nationally have been relatively flat in past years, Proctor said.
“We have become more in balance,” he said. “But it has become more difficult to sell wine.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or email@example.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.