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North Coast wine grape harvest begins, and outlook for smaller crop is welcomed

The 2020 wine grape harvest has begun in the North Coast, and vintners are seeing the first signs of a crop that appears to be not as large as anticipated earlier this season. And that’s a good thing, considering the havoc the pandemic has wreaked this year on key winery sales channels — on top of lingering supply and demand challenges from the past two years.

At sparkling-wine house Mumm Napa, its first Napa County pinot noir grapes arrived Tuesday, a bit earlier arrival than in recent years, according to winemaker Tami Lotz.

“It’s looking like a good season,” Lotz said. “Everything is tasting really nice. We’ve got some really great acids this year, and probably that’s the result of it being a little earlier.”

Grapes for sparkling wines are harvested at lower sugar levels than when the same varieties are picked for table wines. This gives the industry a preview of crop metrics that had been conjecture of varying complexity earlier in the season.

Thanks to warmer weather when the vines were blooming then even ripening, it’s shaping up to be a faster harvest this year for Mumm Napa, perhaps in five weeks instead of the typical six for the winery, Lotz said. Grapes are ripening at about the same rate in the typically warmer Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley as they are in the historically cooler Carneros region spanning Napa and Sonoma counties.

“It’s looking like all the pinot is going to be coming in the next two weeks,” she said.

Vintners and growers are reporting that clusters throughout the North Coast are ripening evenly across the berries, thanks to favorable weather at key points in the season. “Veraison” is the French term for the time in the growing season when red grape berries start to take on the color winemakers prize, signaling the beginning of the final stretch toward harvest.

Mumm Napa is estimating it will bring in a little over 3,000 tons of grapes this season, down from nearly 4,000 tons typically harvested.

“We worked to bring in a little less,” Lotz said.

Mumm Napa is distributed to a mix of venues for on-premises consumption such as restaurants, which have been hard hit nationally by coronavirus restrictions, and of off-premises locales such as stores, which have benefitted from a surge in consumer spending during shelter-at-home orders.

“We have had a lot of off-premises sales and have successful (direct-to-consumer sales) at the winery and from the wine club,” Lotz said.

Korbel Champagne Cellars brought in its first fruit of the season Tuesday, chardonnay from the Clarksburg appellation east of Solano County, and organic pinot noir is inbound from the Lodi area, according to winemaker Paul Ahvenainen.

“My initial take is that harvest will come in hot and heavy; I believe it will be short and intense,” he said, estimating the west Sonoma County-based bubble business will bring in its estimated 11,000 tons this year by mid-September. That would be 3,000 tons lighter than last year.

Uncertainty stalls grape and bulk-wine sales

While there has been a boom in store and e-commerce sales of wine, restaurant and tasting-room sales are on track for an estimated 60% hit this year, according to Jon Moramarco, editor of the closely followed Gomberg Fredrikson Report.

And that plus the supply overhang from the record 2018 and sizable 2019 harvests at a time of slower growth in bottle sales has tempered winery appetite for grape purchases in the past two years, said Glenn Proctor, a partner in grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co.

“Local buyers in coast regions — and in Napa–Sonoma — are not out looking for grapes, and some turned into sellers themselves,” Proctor said. “Those that had bought grapes earlier in year are now looking to sell and have some bulk wine to sell as well.”

He estimates that North Coast wine grape tonnage will be 5%–10% below the average of about 500,000 tons in the past several years. But that yield depends on how much fruit actually gets picked this harvest, Proctor said.

“We have more fruit available than we’ve had in 10 years,” he said. “In the (Central) Valley, (grape) prices are up 26% because they’re looking for what they need for the off-premise surge. On the (North and Central) coasts, local wineries are hesitant because they don’t have a lot of security in predicting what future sales will be. They want to wait before they spend cash on future supply, unless they know they need it.”

While the North Coast market for excess wine has been active, many of the shoppers have been vintners with brands centered on brands from interior regions of the state and tend to reach the store shelf for less than $13 a bottle. Bulk Napa cabernet sauvignon and Russian River Valley pinot noir and chardonnay are selling at lower prices per gallon than three years ago.

“You may sell Napa cab on the bulk market, but it may be going for a Lodi price,” Proctor said.

Even ripening in Sonoma County

In Sonoma County, harvest came 10 days earlier than it did in 2019, according to trade group Sonoma County Winegrowers. And last year was cooler and wetter than this season has been so far.

Early to bring grapes in this year was MacMurray Ranch in Russian River Valley, according to the trade group. Crews there picked 20 tons of pinot noir grapes for J Vineyards bubbly on Wednesday evening.

Another early harvester was Sasaki Vineyards in the Schellville area south of the city of Sonoma. This year, the family company brought in around 20 tons of pinot noir for Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines early Thursday morning. The Sasakis have been growing pinot noir for Gloria Ferrer for 19 years.

At Rack & Riddle Wine Services in Healdsburg and Geyserville, Director of Winemaking Manveer Sandhu was expecting the mostly custom sparkling and still-wine producer to receive its first grapes of the season, Russian River Valley pinot noir, on Friday.

“This year we’re looking to have our largest year by far,” he said. The winery plans to crush nearly 8,000 tons this year.

“Reports from winegrowers indicate a well-balanced and quality crop, with even ripening through veraison,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, in a statement. “As always we are looking forward to getting our fruit off the vine and enjoying the 2020 vintage.”

Fits of frost to the north

Mendocino County-based Fetzer Vineyards and its Biodynamic-certified brand Bonterra are watching red grape clusters turn color after a challenging start to the season.

“With veraison underway, things are coloring and starting to soften, and our current aim is to keep the vines healthy as they continue to ripen,” said Joseph Brinkley, director of vineyards. “We anticipate a somewhat earlier harvest and potentially condensed processing of whites and reds, with good quality overall among reduced‐to‐average yields.”

With less precipitation during the 2019–2020 rain year, Mendocino County has faced five times the frost events of last season, Brinkley said. That resulted in somewhat limiting the vegetative growth of the vines and reducing cluster sizes, especially in the red grapes such cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

“We expect this to contribute to strong quality, as these phenomena can improve the balance and concentration in the fruit and, ultimately, the wines,” Brinkley said.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers wine, construction and real estate.

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