Grape harvest begins
Vineyard near Glen Ellen brings in season's first pinot noir

  • The tractor lights up the row as a worker heads back to pick with an empty lug near Glen Ellen, Ca., August 10, 2009. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

GLEN ELLEN Kicking off the annual North Coast grape harvest, a dozen workers plunged into a dark Sonoma Valley vineyard before dawn Monday and emerged with a surprising find a far larger than expected crop.

If the unexpectedly generous yields at Hunter Vineyards are matched at other vineyards, the size of the 2009 crop could further pressure grape prices and depress growers who have yet to sell their fruit.

The size of the crop at the small pinot noir vineyard south of Glen Ellen 40 percent larger than last year surprised vineyard manager Chris Bowen.

I thought it was going to be a real easy day today, and it turned out to be a much bigger day than I anticipated, Bowen said.

The harvest at Hunter Vineyards is getting underway nine days later than last year, the result of a cooler than average growing season. The perfect ripening weather has optimism high for a great vintage. But its the quantity, more than the quality, that has Wine Country abuzz this year.

By noon, workers had filled 65 bins with the plump clusters of pinot noir grapes, compared to last years yield of 51 bins, Bowen said.

But the real surprise came after the grapes were delivered to Gloria Ferrer winery in Sonoma, where theyll be made into sparkling wine. Instead of the 15.3 tons delivered last year, the same 5.5-acre vineyard produced 21.5 tons, a stunning 40 percent increase, Bowen said.

If that bodes anything for other people who do not have contracts, it does not bode well, Bowen said.

The early harvest numbers from Hunter Vineyards are being closely watched this year because the grape market is in such a precarious state. After hitting record prices last year, the recession has sent grape prices sliding 30 percent or more this year.

Slow sales of wines over $20 have caused inventories to back up at most North Coast wineries, making them hesitant to buy any more grapes than they absolutely have to. The result is anxious growers with fruit ripening on the vine and few wineries lining up to buy the grapes.

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