California North Coast wine grape growers get last grapes in before hard frost

This year’s wine grape harvest in Mendocino and Lake counties ended with a close call.

After a season buffeted by early frost and late extreme heat and rain, some of the last deliveries of fruit from the northernmost counties of California’s North Coast appellation arrived at wineries just before a potentially ruinous “hard freeze” that descended on the area Nov. 4, according to wine grape brokers and vintners.

“For the most part, it was serendipitous that the fruit finally got ripe (at the end of October),” said Christian Klier, who connects grape buyers and sellers in the region for Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage. “A few were forced to harvest prior to the event to avoid the frost.”

Glenn Proctor, a partner of San Rafael-based grape and bulk-wine brokerage Ciatti Co., said he doesn’t think the freeze will have any effect on the harvest, as it is basically over.

Signs of a chilly cap to the season came a few weeks before the season wrapped. The first National Weather Service warning of cold temperatures for parts of Lake, Mendocino and northern coastal California counties came Oct. 22.

But then came a forecast for an unseasonal cold snap together followed by rain the first week of November. The weather service on Nov. 2 issued a hard-freeze warning — likely temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit — for all of Lake County and eastern Mendocino County just before dawn Nov. 4.

“It clearly indicated that cold, wet weather was coming, and growers said they needed to be done,” said Bill Pauli, general manager of Yokayo Wine Co., a winery with 2.3 million gallons of storage just north of Ukiah. “Everybody made it.”

The last truck of grapes Yokayo was expecting for his season arrived on Nov. 3.

Affiliated company Polly Ranch farms 1,400 acres of vines largely from central and eastern Mendocino County, with some acreage in surrounding Sonoma and Napa counties. Most of the fruit crushed at Yokayo is for customer wineries.

Much of Yokayo’s late-ripening fruit had arrived there Oct. 27–29, but some growers had grapes where sugar levels weren’t quite ready for picking and lingered on the vine over the next few days, Pauli said.

Indeed, the freezing weather arrived. The weather service recorded the temperature plummeted to 28 degrees Nov. 4 in Potter Valley, a mountainous wine-growing area in eastern Mendocino County.

Wine grapes in Mendocino and Lake counties typically ripen later than those in Sonoma and Napa counties to the south, because the northern areas tend to be cooler.

While Mendocino, Lake and eastern Napa counties had spotty early-season frost and wind issues that impacted the size of the resulting crop, the more significant impact on tonnage came from the late-season excessive-heat spike.

Six days of temperatures well over 100 degrees in late August and early September sent vineyard crews and wineries throughout the North Coast into overdrive to pick remaining earlier-ripening grapes, such as pinot noir and chardonnay.

The Labor Day heat spike was followed two weeks later by an unseasonably early rainstorm, which dropped an inch in a number of North Coast appellations and up to 3 inches in some areas near the coastline.

But a stretch of warm, dry days after the rain allowed the cabernet sauvignon crop that’s No. 1 in Napa Valley by tonnage and No. 2 in Sonoma County to be done by mid-October.

In Mendocino and Lake counties, a number of wineries were holding off on taking in more grapes in mid-October to move through the grapes taken in from previous weeks. That opened up the last week of October, allowing the last rush to beat the forecast for frost and more rain.

For the chardonnay crop in Mendocino County overall, it’s anticipated to be around average or a bit above, according to Klier. Growers with better yields in the Russian River watershed were those who stored extra water or drilled wells ahead of the state-ordered curtailment of water rights in the third year of droughts.

“Those who did not — and there were some who didn’t — suffered greatly during the heat event,” Klier said.

Much of the sauvignon blanc crop from Lake and Mendocino was picked before the heat spike, but grapes that weren’t were stalled in ripening for weeks, delaying the harvest, Klier said.

As for Lake and Mendocino cabernet sauvignon, it was hit a bit harder by the heat spike, Klier said. Turrentine estimates that cab tonnage from the two counties will be 15% to 30% below historical averages.

As it was, the 2021 wine grape crops in Mendocino and Lake counties, at nearly 47,000 and 33,000 tons, respectively, were down 27% and 23% from the five-year average, according to a North Bay Business Journal analysis of the California Grape Crush Report.

But the official tally will have to await the next state crush report, set to be released in early February 2023.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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