California North Coast wine grape harvest eases toward an early finish
A third consecutive drought-challenged wine grape season is nearly complete in the North Coast, an earlier-than-normal finish spurred by consistently warm fall days on the heels of an extraordinary hot and long late summer heat wave.
The assessment from vintners, growers and fruit brokers is that the region’s billion-dollar wine grape crop was about 90% picked by last week and headed toward lighter-that-average tonnage because of the dryness, heat and some early season frost.
Tonnage for the region last year came in just under 400,000 tons. That was 13% below the five-year average but nearly 17% better than the fire-shortened 2020 harvest, according to a North Bay Business Journal analysis of the California Grape Crush Report.
Sonoma County’s top wine grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir, sped into wineries leading up to the several days of 100-degree-plus heat in late August and early September. That stretch was followed less than two weeks later by a brief but heavy rainstorm.
Napa Valley’s cooler Carneros region also is a major North Coast source for both grape varieties.
And now picking is set to wrap this week in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties for late-ripening red varietals, such as cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, petit verdot, syrah and malbec, according to Christian Klier, North Coast grape broker for Turrentine Brokerage.
All in all, it’s been a solid season, absent the fires of 2017, 2019 and 2020, according to Karissa Kruse, president of the trade group Sonoma County Winegrowers.
There are nearly 1,800 winegrowers in Sonoma County.
“Mother Nature always promises a harvest dance that keeps our farmers on their toes, and 2022 did not disappoint,” Kruse said.
The start of the harvest in the county came July 29, the earliest she has seen in her 10 years in the role.
“The overall smaller berry and cluster sizes are packing a stellar quality 2022 vintage,” Kruse said.
Todd Graff, winemaker for Frank Family Vineyard in Napa Valley, said yields are coming in lighter — off by single-digit percentages — than estimates before harvest started in mid-August.
And that was coming off the already lighter crop of 2021.
“We're going to be not everywhere we wanted to be, but we're going to be comfortable,” Graff said.
He was gearing up to receive his last grapes of the season Friday, coming in from the 70-acre Benjamin cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the Rutherford appellation and from 75 acres of mostly cab in the S&J vineyard in the Vaca Mountains east of Atlas Peak.
In a typical season, the last of the S&J vineyard fruit comes in during the last week of October, or, if rains haven’t come yet, early November.
Mendocino and Lake counties received more of the mid-September rain than Napa and Sonoma counties did, and that delayed the harvest there, according to Glenn Proctor, partner with grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co.
“But it looks like it will cause minimal issues,” Proctor said.
Mildew and rot are major concerns following rainstorms in the later stages of grape ripening.
“We’re not hearing of any significant... issues. There were a few hot spots, bbut we got through it much better than many expected,” Proctor said. “Probably, the nice weather that we had following the rain was a big help.”
But growers and vintners also had to deal with the effects of the heat wave on the fruit, Proctor said.
“Definitely hearing that the heat caused some of the fruit harvested to exhibit some unusual chemistries, and a number of wineries saying that had a significant number of higher brix picks in their wineries,” he said.
But so far, early reports are vintners “were able to work through those issues, and that wines are in good shape,” he added.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-4256.