Beginning at 4 a.m., under electric light, scores of workers scramble through the west Sonoma County vineyards of Dutton Ranch to pick ripened chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
In a ritual that is being played out on thousands of acres along the North Coast, the harvest is once again under way.
Over the past week, as the temperatures have climbed in Wine Country, the harvest has swung into high gear. The crush is here.
Were picking grapes now fast and furious, said grape grower Steve Dutton. We were doing a little here and there. Now were going big time.
Bins of grapes are being whisked off to wineries to be separated from stems, crushed and fermented.
So far, the weather has been cooperative since the crush got off to a slow start five weeks ago with the harvest of grapes used for sparkling wine. With just a fraction of the countys $400 million yearly crop in, growers report the grapes are good and the yields are decent.
Now, the pace is picking up and tensions are rising.
The harvest is unfolding during a challenging time for the wine industry what some brokers describe as one of the most difficult periods in more than three decades.
The recession and consumers retreat from high-priced wines has led to softening demand and the likelihood that tons of sweetening grapes will not find buyers.
Its a very good year for grape quality. The sad irony is, there are people who will run the risk of leaving fruit on the vine, not picked, very high-quality fruit, said Duff Bevill, a Dry Creek Valley grape grower and vineyard manager.
The spot market for grapes, meaning for those that are not already under contract for sale, has essentially dried up.
Harvest is always a stressful time, with long hours and a lot of night picking, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
Growers who dont have all their crops sold have the added worry of trying to find a buyer.