Lighter-weight North Coast wine grape harvest speeds toward a close

Early, fast, light and — so far — smoke free.

That’s how growers and vintners are summing up this year’s North Coast wine grape harvest, which is expected to be mostly wrapped by the end of October.

Unlike last year’s wildfire-shortened season, which resulted in double-digit drops in tonnage picked in Napa and Sonoma counties, this year’s lighter-than-average tonnage is being attributed largely to a second straight year of drought. Even with the educated guesses and decades of experience, the full scale of this year’s harvest won’t be known until the first official tally of the crop, set for release in early February.

Napa County cabernet sauvignon is over half picked, with Sonoma County cab approaching the half-way point, according to Brian Clements of Turrentine Brokerage.

Chardonnay in Sonoma and Napa counties is nearly all picked, while start-and-stop picking for Russian River Valley pinot noir has reached roughly the three-quarters point, he said. Picking in Mendocino and Lake counties is more than three-quarters picked.

Sonoma County growers are just over three-quarters done with picking all varieties, and the remainder is expected to arrive at wineries mostly in the first half of October and complete around the end of the month, according to the county trade association.

“The lack of rain prompted Sonoma County farmers to adjust farming practices early in the season through changing pruning practices, dropping fruit, minimizing cover crop that competes for moisture in soil and other best management practices,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. “These practices coupled with the drought has created a lighter-than-average crop across varieties, but the quality is exceptional.”

The five-year average for Sonoma County has been around 220,000 tons a year for the past four years, based on Business Journal analysis of the California Grape Crush Report. But last year’s tonnage as Last year, with picking cut short amid some smoke damage concerns yield was 147,000, nearly one-third below average.

Napa County’s tonnage last year also was one-third below average, with only 98,000 tons picked.

The smaller crop combined with warm days and cool nights resulted in many of Sonoma County’s major grape varieties ripening at the same time this year, such as Russian River Valley chardonnay coming in roughly when Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon was ready, Kruse said. Normally, those top-tonnage varieties are among the county’s first picked and last picked, respectively.

“Our farmers have been steadily bringing in the grapes and enjoying their annual waltz with Mother Nature,” Kruse said.

Plata Wine Partners, the Napa Valley vintner affiliate of Silverado Winegrowers, which farms over 18,000 acres in the North Coast and Central Coast, has brought much of its North Coast fruit and is waiting for ripening of cabernet sauvignon from the Paso Robles region, according to Alison Crowe, director of winemaking.

“Everything is tasting so good,” she said.

While grapes from Pope Valley in eastern Napa County came in rapidly because of warmer temperatures and less water, Plata has found conditions relatively moderate elsewhere in the North Coast and cooler for its Central Coast vineyards, which are just starting to move toward ripening.

She noted something that other growers and vintners have found this season, a mismatch between grape sugar and acid levels, where sugar targets for picking are not in line with where winemakers want acidity to be.

“It’s really a year that you’ve got to be in the vineyards tasting and making block-by-block decisions, not leaving it to be figured out in the winery,” Crowe said. “It’s not a season where you can ‘call it in.’”

Rombauer Vineyards in Napa Valley is about three-quarters done with harvest, and the rest is expected to come off the vines in the by the end of October, according to Bob Knebel, president and CEO.

All the expected sauvignon blanc grapes from Napa and Sonoma counties have been crushed, and 90% of the chardonnay had arrived by the end of September. Remaining are about half the cab and merlot plus one-quarter of the zinfandel, most of which comes from Rombauer’s Sierra Foothills vineyards.

The winery team will be watching the fermentation of the zin, because one of the Sierra fires started 10 miles east of the winery in that appellation, Knebel said. Winds mostly blew the smoke away from the property, but there were some periods where the winds shifted back.

“Zinfandel seems to shrug off and not have much of an issue, but we’re watching very carefully the test results,” Knebel said.

But he’s thankful this year in the North Coast wasn’t a repeat of the last few years.

“We were due for a clean year,” Knebel said.

Overall, Rombauer’s crush this year is expected to be in line with its multiyear average, but the vintner was out earlier in the season to buy extra grapes when it became apparent that the dry conditions would limit the yield.

“Yields have been variable, depending on the site,” Knebel said. “Some are lighter than we’d like to have seen. But fruit quality is excellent, and we’re excited about the wines.”

Demandwise, Rombauer is starting to see a return of the winery’s typical sales mix of restaurants and retail as states eased pandemic restrictions, but e-commerce and tasting room sales continue to buoy the results, Knebel said.

But staffing continues to be a problem for the winery’s restaurant accounts in California to fully return to pre-pandemic business levels, some that has challenged the winery in staffing its tasting room more than five days a week.

At Fayard Winemaking, Julien Fayard has seen a wide range in yields across the 300 acres his company tends for clients, nearly all in Napa County but also ranging from the Sonoma Coast to the Sierra Nevada.

“There is quite a bit of variation, based on the vineyard and the farming,” Fayard said. “It’s really a vintage that people with available water and who manage their water well have a direct correlation with yields.”

He’s seen some thirsty vineyards have yields down 40%–60% from their averages, and some with ample soil moisture are up 10%. He compares this year to 2010 for a cooler season and 2015 for dryness.

In Mendocino and Lake counties, the wine grape harvest is nearing its end in the next few weeks, but yields in some vineyards there have taken a larger hit than elsewhere in the North Coast and California, according to Glenn Proctor, partner in wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co.

“Lake (County) is 50% off in cab (tonnage), and that’s not usually picked until October,” Proctor said. “Some were picking reds at the end of August. It’s extremely early.”

Growers got hit hard last year in revenue per acre because of so many North Coast tons weren’t picked out of concerns on smoke damage, and now this year some vineyard yields are off by more than half, Proctor noted.

“But they still put money into those acres,” he said. All the while, costs for labor and trucking continue to rise.

“It’s a bad year,” said Clay Shannon, whose Shannon Ranches farms 4,000 acres of vines, including 1,600 in Lake County, 100 in Mendocino County and some in Napa Valley. Anticipating being done with harvest in two weeks, Shannon has seen yields in down by more than half from average, with production at some vineyards off by three-quarters.

“If you’re expecting 5 tons an acre, you’re seeing 2 tons,” Shannon said. “I haven’t seen one full crop yet.”

Hardest hit have been Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc, with less impact on Rhone varieties like syrah and Burgundy grapes pinot noir and chardonnay.

“Young vines on drought-tolerant rootstocks are doing OK, but it seems like older vineyards are suffering,” said Shannon, who also owns Shannon Family of Wines. “We’re living in this evolution and going to more drought tolerant rootstock and drought- tolerant varietals. We’ve been doing 15 to 20 acres of redevelopment a year.”

Concerned about climate change, Shannon is converting about 1,000 hillside vineyards to organic production, anticipating getting California Certified Organic Farming certification this fall, at which time the company will pursue regenerative farming certification.

Ukiah-based Noble Vineyard Management, which farms 1,500 acres in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties, is about 85% done with picking, according to CEO Tyler Rodrigue.

He has seen yields off by 30% to 60% in the northernmost areas. Part of the challenge was a late winter warm spell of about a week followed by a hard frost. The company had adjusted its frost tactics since the 2019 devastating frosts, but this warm spell this year woke up the vines, only to hit the tender growth with frost.

“Mother Nature is moving the cheese on us,” Rodrigue said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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