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California North Coast wine grape harvest gets earlier start

The North Coast wine grape harvest this year is underway, and hotter temperatures this season are poised to bring the season to an early finish.

“It's gonna be a quick one this year, especially in Napa and Sonoma,” said Christian Klier, North Coast grape broker for Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

More hot days in both counties this year has led to earlier-than-average ripening, and the beginning of early picking is in line with last year’s start, Klier said. Roughly 80% to 90% of the grapes Turrentine has surveyed for clients in Napa and Sonoma counties have completed the color change in the berries, a stage of grape ripening called veraison, Klier said.

Yet a cooler spring and summer until recently in Mendocino and Lake counties has led to the widest divergence in ripening he’s seen in two decades between those grapes and fruit in Napa and Sonoma counties, Klier said.

The wine grape harvest typically starts with fruit picked at lower sugar levels for sparkling wines, followed typically by white grapes and early-ripening reds such as pinot noir. The number and severity of hot days from now on will determine, Klier said, whether the first grapes for table wines will be ready to pick as expected about 20 days after the fruit for sparkling wines comes in.

On a foggy Friday morning vineyard workers harvest of pinot noir grapes bound for the Martin Ray Winery, Friday July 29, in Sebastopol, as the 2022 grape harvest gets underway. Read more about the Sonoma County picking. (Chad Surmick / Press Democrat)
On a foggy Friday morning vineyard workers harvest of pinot noir grapes bound for the Martin Ray Winery, Friday July 29, in Sebastopol, as the 2022 grape harvest gets underway. Read more about the Sonoma County picking. (Chad Surmick / Press Democrat)

In Sonoma County, picking started in the predawn hours Friday morning in at a Russian River Valley vineyard, according to The Press Democrat. About 10 tons of pinot noir were picked near Forestville. Jim Pratt, owner of Cornerstone Certified Vineyard, told the newspaper that it was the earliest he’s ever started, originally expecting the first grapes from there on Aug. 10.

Winery trade group Napa Valley Vintners said Wednesday that it expected sparkling-wine houses in that county to begin picking next week.

Sparkling wine specialist Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services in Healdsburg plans to receive its first North Coast grapes on Friday, Aug. 5, or Monday, Aug. 8, ramping up to full production by mid-August, according to Manveer Sandhu, director of winemaking.

“Currently we are trending slightly behind last couple of vintages with regards to fruit maturation,” Sandhu wrote in an email. “(With t)he frost event in the spring coupled with the ongoing drought, we are forecasting lower than expected yields in the vineyard, but the concentration of flavors occurring in the berries has me excited for the potential of an excellent harvest.”

At Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services in Healdsburg, the sparkling wine specialist facility is being readied to receive its first North Coast grapes on Friday, Aug. 5, or Monday, Aug. 8, ramping up to full production by mid-August, according to Manveer Sandhu, director of winemaking.

“Currently we are trending slightly behind last couple of vintages with regards to fruit maturation,” Sandhu wrote in an email. “(With t)he frost event in the spring coupled with the ongoing drought, we are forecasting lower than expected yields in the vineyard, but the concentration of flavors occurring in the berries has me excited for the potential of an excellent harvest.”

Pleasant boost in yield after drought and fire

Honig Vineyard and Winery kicked off the Napa Valley wine grape harvest Tuesday morning, according to winery trade group Napa Valley Vintners.

The Rutherford winery brought in 25 tons of sauvignon blanc grapes from Gordon Family Ranch in Gordon Valley in southeast Napa Valley. The two blocks picked are the vineyard’s oldest, planted in 1984 and 2005, and typically have low yields but ripen first, according to winemaker Kristin Belair.

The winery makes sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon wines, picking the white grapes starting in the first to third weeks of August, but this year and last were the earliest picks for the 42-year-old winery, Belair told the Business Journal.

“Our vineyard samples from the last couple of days indicate that it will be 7-10 days before the next round will be ready to harvest,” Belair wrote in an email. “Everything looks fantastic and we will continue to closely monitor our vineyards in anticipation of what will come in next.”

The late spring colder weather and rains after a dry January and February helped shape this season, according to Belair.

“The recent, steady, onshore flow has given us the moderate daytime temperatures and cool nights that create the perfect environment for a stunning vintage,” Belair wrote.

The yield per acre from the first 25 tons picked were higher than expected earlier in the season, and that was a pleasant surprise, according to Stephanie Honig, head of international sales and public relations.

“With the drought in 2020 and the (Glass) Fire, we had half of the sauvignon blanc we have made in the past, so it was a struggle with our release cycle because we sold out early,” Honig said. “We’re in a position that we’re allocating sauvignon blanc, and that is not our model. We’re a 40-year-old brand, and we have many wineries that have been supporting us. Once you get a (restaurant wine list) placement and you start and stop, it can be hard to get it back.”

It’s still early to make a call on Honig’s sauvignon blanc, but the expectation is for picking to start the second week of September, based on flavor and sugar characteristics of the grapes, Honig said.

Northernmost counties trail far behind

Mendocino and Lake counties until a week ago were a month away from the first grapes for sparkling wine being ready to pick in the hotter areas such as around Ukiah and Hopland, with cooler areas such as Anderson and Potter valleys trailing behind that, Klier said. But triple digits in Mendocino County on Friday could move up that timetable and could lead to the harvest in the northernmost counties of the region ending up being only a few weeks behind last year, Klier said.

The heft of the North Coast crop isn’t expected to be smaller than last year but isn’t forecast to set tonnage records, Klier said. Sonoma County chardonnay is expected to be at multiyear averages or just under, while pinot noir tonnage is trending 8% higher than last year. Cabernet sauvignon tonnage at this point in the season is trending toward the average.

A big difference likely will be in yields from Mendocino and Lake counties, where tonnage was impacted last year by drought, Klier said.

“It's fared very well for the North Coast in being able to retain the crop, and the canopies look a lot better through this drought,” Klier said. “People were better prepared this year for this drought and saved water over the winter in expectation of it.”

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 jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.


Updates, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022: Details on Napa Valley’s harvest start at Honig Winery & Vineyard were added, updating a mention in the original story from Napa Valley Vintners’ expectation that harvest would start the first week of August. Rack & Riddle Wine Services provided an expectation for when it would start receiving North Coast fruit along with an early assessment of the crop.

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