A strong aroma of grass and hearty grape juice hung in the air Tuesday morning as a truck full of bright green clusters of sauvignon blanc was unloaded at Rodney Strong Vineyards.
The juicy stew of fruit was poured into a hopper and gently urged through a series of conveyors and belts, making its way to the stainless steel press.
The North Coast's annual grape harvest, now in its third week, is expanding into sauvignon blanc and pinot noir used to make still wines.
The sauvignon blanc grapes, freshly picked from a vineyard in Geyserville, ripened about a week earlier than normal, said Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing for Rodney Strong.
“It's nice to see it start earlier,” McIlroy said. “We've had great growing conditions, and that leads to smooth sailing a lot of the time.”
The North Coast grape harvest began Aug. 10 in Napa Valley, where crews began picking grapes used to make sparkling wine. Since then, about 1 percent of the county's crop has been brought in from the fields, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
“I think when you get an early start, that really gives people a lift, because it gives you a chance to get some things off across the scale,” Frey said. “You don't want to be sitting there with grapes in the field and the calendar clicking by.”
Harvest for still wine grapes begins before Labor Day about half the time, he said. An early start is good news for growers: Grapes that ripen early are less likely to be out in the fields when fall rains arrive, Frey said.
Last year, after a cool summer delayed ripening, rain storms in October spread mold through some of the remaining crop, which came in 17 percent below normal.
But this year's crop is expected to hit the average size of about 200,000 tons or more, he said.
“In what we've picked so far, things are on the heavier side,” McIlroy said. “When you look at last year, we were lucky to pick 50 percent of the crop.”