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Changing colors in Sonoma County vineyards signal approach of harvest

  • Vineyard manager Brad Petersen checks the start of veraison or the stage of growth when grapes begin to change color at Silver Oak Cellars in Geyserville on Friday, July 11, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The countdown to the annual grape crush has begun as clusters of fruit slowly change texture and color in pockets throughout Sonoma County, heralding the approach of a harvest season expected to come earlier while yielding a crop less bountiful than in previous record-breaking years.

Sonoma County vineyard managers said they have seen the first signs of veraison in their grape crops, starting a process of weather watching and vineyard preparation until harvest begins in late summer. During veraison — a French term that describes the visual onset of ripening — grapes used to make red wine turn from green to red and purple, while grapes used to make white wine transform from green to a golden yellow.

The 2014 growing season has been near ideal, raising growers’ hopes of a high-quality vintage.

“Things are shaping up nicely,” said Steve Sangiacomo of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, which manages 1,600 acres of pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot vineyards. “We have had a lot of mild days, not a lot of cold spells nor heat spikes.”

The veraison process typically starts in the warmer regions of the county, such as the Alexander Valley. About 5 percent of the cabernet sauvignon crop has started turning color at Silver Oak Cellars’ vineyards in the northern part of the Alexander Valley, said Brad Petersen, vineyard manager for Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars.

Within the next three weeks, Petersen expects the process to sweep through the 225 acres of vineyards he manages that extend as far south as the Russian River Valley. “It looks like this season will be a week or two weeks early,” he said.

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said she is expecting an earlier than usual harvest this year, noting some vineyards along the Sonoma Coast region also are reporting signs of veraison, areas that are typically among the last to report, though they often are last to report given the region’s cooler temperatures.

Harvest in Sonoma County usually begins around mid-August for grapes used in sparkling wine. Labor Day typically marks the beginning of harvest of grapes for still wine. But growers cautioned that the start of harvest could easily fluctuate depending on the weather patterns within the next month, with hotter days speeding up the process and cooler days slowing it down. Harvest typically lasts for eight weeks.

Napa Valley growers already have reported veraison, occurring from five to 10 days earlier than usual. Napa’s crop is expected to have a reduced merlot harvest as those grapes did not cluster completely because of wet and windy weather during flowering, according to the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

Harvest usually will occur within six weeks once a crop has reached 50 percent of veraison, said Duff Bevill, who manages 1,000 acres in the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.

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