'Perfect' North Coast grape harvest coming to a close
Published: Friday, November 2, 2012 at 3:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 2, 2012 at 3:08 p.m.
A grape harvest that has been called a perfect season is drawing to a close on California's North Coast, and growers say it could be the region's largest crop in five years.
Most grapes have been brought in from the vineyards, though a few outliers still hang on the vines, waiting for tank space to open up in wineries that have absorbed more grapes than expected over and over again since harvest began 12 weeks ago.
“What a season it's been. I don't think we could have asked for more perfect conditions this year,” said Mick Schroeter, director of winemaking at Sonoma-Cutrer. “The weather was just terrific.”
The ideal growing conditions on the North Coast stood in contrast to the region's last two difficult vintages and dramatically low grape yields in Europe, South America and Australia.
In Sonoma County, the crop is likely to be at least 10 percent larger than normal, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. The weather was ideal, and there weren't any major problems with pests, he said.
“As a result, the fruit has been nice and clean, good quality, and held up well,” Frey said. “That should make for a good vintage.”
The county's grape harvest generally weighs in at 200,000 tons on average, but this year it could swell to 220,000 to 230,000 tons, a level that hasn't been reached since 2005.
Pinot noir had among the highest yields, with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 tons making their way out of the vineyards, compared to about 28,000 tons last year, Frey said. The price of pinot noir grapes, which cost about $2,900 a ton last year, strengthened, Frey said.
“The yields for certain varietals like pinot noir are definitely going to break records, because the crop just kept getting bigger,” said John Balletto, president of Balletto Vineyards & Winery. “You have a lot of abundance, and also you have great quality. As far as being a farmer, it's a great year.”
His pinot noir crop was 20 percent larger than normal, he said.
“Really the only issue tended to be finding a place to get the grapes into the winery,” Frey said. “Both tank and barrel capacity really slowed down the pace of harvest.”
As the crop size estimates rose, wineries called custom-crush facilities and barrel companies to find additional resources to crush the grapes into wine.
“I think everyone was called to see if they had space available,” Frey said.
The large harvest will provide a boost for the local economy. Growers who were tight on cash after small crops the past two years will have money to spend and make purchases they had delayed, Frey said.
“The big effect will be on businesses in the next 12 months,” he said.
Mendocino County also enjoyed a grape harvest that came in an estimated 10 percent above normal, said Zac Robinson, a family owner of Husch Vineyards. Robinson is a volunteer organizing Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., a new coalition of growers and vintners forming after the demise of the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission.
“Coming off the previous two years, this year was just fantastic,” Robinson said. “It's what every year should be. ... There was no major rain, there were no forest fires, it was close to picture perfect.”
Typically, Mendocino County growers harvest about 65,000 tons of grapes, and this year the yield will likely be closer to 70,000 or 75,000, he said.
Labor was tight, especially in pinot noir vineyards in Anderson Valley that are typically harvested by hand.
“There were definitely examples where the pick was cancelled because there wasn't enough people to put a pick together,” Robinson said.
In Lake County, harvest will continue for another week, and the crop will likely be 10 percent larger than normal, said Shannon Gunier, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. Finding enough labor was an issue, so more grape growers turned to mechanical harvesting, she said. The vast majority of the county's crop heads to wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties under contract.
“The weather held, the fruit was plentiful, people let it hang a little longer, and it was gorgeous,” Gunier said. “Everyone's really happy here.”
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