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North Coast wine grape harvest begins early, with potential for a quick finish for the rest of the crop

The 2021 wine grape harvest has begun in the California North Coast, and the first fruit ready for picking suggests that this second straight year of drought is resulting in a quicker-ripening and smaller-scale crop.

Vintners in Napa and Sonoma counties started bringing in fruit this week for sparkling wines. Grapes for these bubbly beverages are commonly are picked at lower sugar levels, a few weeks before the first clusters for still wines come in. This early picking gives the wine business a preview of what’s to come for the bulk of a season’s forthcoming crop — that is, if harvest isn’t under unprecedented pressure like last year’s string of wildfires.

Chandon California early on Wednesday brought in nearly 32 tons of chardonnay from its Napa Valley estate vineyard near Yountville. Pauline Lhote, head winemaker for the sparkling wine producer, told the Business Journal she expects total tonnage to be delivered this year to her operations will be more than what was picked last year but below the winery’s average annual crush.

“As an example, our beautiful estate vineyard on Mount Veeder is showing less fruit, while our estate vineyards in Carneros and Yountville are close to an average year,” she said. “Mother nature always seems to keep us in balance somehow.”

Chandon last year had its harvest wrapped by Sept. 25, just two days before the devastating Glass Fire erupted across the middle of Napa Valley and into part of Sonoma County. That blaze erupted after the Hennessey Fire in eastern Napa County and Walbridge Fire in west Sonoma County. 2020's already drought-impacted crop was further affected by concerns about smoke in the midst of the harvest, leading to Sonoma County’s harvested tonnage being 36% less than in 2019, and Napa County’s 38% lower.

This year, many North Coast areas received a fraction of the average rainfall over the winter, and earlier warmer days spurred the beginning of the growing season earlier. Chandon and others moved to irrigate earlier in the season then supplement with more intense, less frequent watering as reservoir levels have dwindled over the summer. The smaller crop also has resulted from being even more selective than normal for only the best clusters to remain on the vine, a practice called “thinning” or “dropping.”

“What we lost in quantity in 2021 we’ll make up for with exceptional quality and flavor concentration,” Lhote said.

Glenn Proctor, a partner in wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co. in San Rafael, said the outlook now for this year’s wine grape crop in the North Coast is “early and light.”

“It seems that on some of the early picks, clusters are not weighing a lot, and that is probably a function of berry size and berry number,” Proctor said. Well-watered vines tend to produce bigger grape berries and more of them per cluster. “(We’re) also hearing more reports of growers being affected by the water restrictions, which are continuing to be more severe during the summer.”

California water regulators recently have ordered thousands of rural water users in the Russian River watershed, including homeowners, vineyard operators and other growers, to stop taking out water because Lake Mendocino has dropped to less than 20% capacity.

Drought conditions are creating fairly serious water issues in certain parts of the North Coast, particularly Mendocino County winegrowing regions Potter, Redwood and Ukiah valleys, according to Christian Klier, North Coast wine grape broker for Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage. This is leading so some challenges with grape purchase contracts from wineries, and growers are having to decide if it’s worth it to spend further money on farming and harvest if the yield will be significantly less, he said.

“There will be some hard decisions,” Klier said.

But there could be an upside to the smaller-sized fruit, particularly for red grapes, he said.

“It could be a winemaker’s year, with a lighter crop and intense flavors and color with the drought,” he said.

In the Carneros winegrowing region straddling southwest Napa Valley and southeastern Sonoma County, the appellation’s first sparkling winery is expecting to pick about 30 tons of pinot noir next Thursday, according to Harry Hansen, director of winemaking for Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards. He returned to the winery in June after a 20-year absence, following the retirement of Mike Crumly early this year.

“Berry size looks pretty good and crop looks average to slightly above average for us,” said Hansen, who had been at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley for the past 10 years, the last half as senior winemaker and general manager. Not everybody going to tell you that but we’re in pretty good shape for harvest.”

A key reason for that is the heavy clay soils of that western edge of Carneros on the Sonoma side holds what moisture came early in the season, he said. After heat spikes earlier in the season, the cool July and August days are reminding Hansen of the 2017 season, which resulted in “freshness” in the fruit flavor and not as much dehydration of the berries at harvest. The vineyard crews also didn’t remove as many leaves from the vines earlier in the season to prevent “sunburn” of the grapes.

The drought across California and Western states is bringing early ripening of wine grapes across the Golden State, according to Klier. Last year, picking for white grape sauvignon blanc started in early to late August, but it’s looking like that crop will be coming in fairly early this year.

“I looked at some Lake County sauvignon blanc, and I think it seems pretty sweet,” Klier said. “Picking could started at the end of next week.”

Custom sparkling wine maker Rack & Riddle in Healdsburg brought in 700 tons of fruit from the Central Valley on Tuesday and Wednesday, and North Coast fruit is set to arrive next week, according to Mark Garaventa, general manager. The vintner expects to crush 10,500 tons of grapes altogether this season.

And some grapes for still wines already are being picked in the California interior.

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

Correction, Aug. 9, 2021: Christian Klier is a North Coast wine grape broker for Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage, not Allied Grape Growers.

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