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An early start for local grape harvest (w/video)


Under clear skies shortly before dawn Wednesday, work crews fanned out into a vineyard along Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail and began picking pinot noir grapes, marking one of the earliest starts to the North Coast grape harvest in years.

Approximately 40 laborers moved along rows of vines at the Game Farm vineyard between Yountville and Oakville, picking grapes that were trucked within hours to Mumm Napa to be pressed and eventually made into sparkling wine that currently retails from $22 to $100 a bottle.

The crews laughed, talked and shouted in Spanish as they cut off grape clusters that dropped into baskets. Those baskets, when filled, were rushed over to large bins pulled by a tractor. The workers finished harvesting 16 tons in the 4.5-acre parcel around 9 a.m.

“It’s a nice little soft start,” said Ben Vyborny, vineyard manager for Vyborny Vineyard management, which owns the vineyard.

The early morning activity is believed to be the first harvest on the North Coast, kicking off the annual grape crush for the multibillion-dollar wine industry. Growers are predicting a crop that will come from 10 to 14 days earlier than usual — if current weather patterns hold.

Mumm Napa has not picked grapes this early in 10 years, since the 2004 harvest started on July 26, winery officials said. Last year, Mumm Napa started crushing grapes on Aug. 1, two days later than this year’s harvest. Despite the early start, the 2014 crop is still running a week behind the 1997 harvest, which started July 23, the winery’s earliest ever, said winemaker Ludovic Dervin.

Harvest is also starting early in Sonoma County, where J Vineyards and Winery was slated to begin picking grapes late Wednesday night at Nicole’s Vineyard above the Russian River’s eastern bank.

Over the next three months, winemakers will log 14-hour days as they monitor weather patterns and constantly test, feel and taste the grapes remaining on the vines. Vineyard managers will juggle work schedules amid another tight labor market, which has already forced some vineyard companies to offer year-round work to keep the best laborers. And spouses will be dubbed “harvest widows” because they will see little of their wives or husbands until harvest ends at the beginning of November.

The crop will likely be smaller than last year’s record yield, though average compared to previous years.

In 2013, Napa County’s grape harvest exceeded 174,000 tons with a value of $656 million, while Sonoma County had a record-breaking crop of 271,000 tons with a value totaling $605 million.

Local winemakers are expecting another high-quality crop as a result of good weather. Earlier this year, vineyards had little frost to hinder bud break, and a few late winter downpours provided needed moisture for the soil.

Temperatures this summer have not been too extreme, typically ranging from 80 to 95 degrees during the day and the low 50 degrees at night.

“It’s been textbook. You couldn’t ask for better weather,” said Steven Urberg, winemaker for Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in the Carneros wine region of Sonoma Valley. The winery is several days away from starting harvest on its property for pinot noir grapes that will be made into sparkling wine.

Grapes used for sparkling wines are picked first during harvest as winemakers seek fruit with lower sugar levels. Around Labor Day, crews will typically start picking grapes to be used in still wine, which makes up the vast majority of the region’s grape crop. The timetable will likely be moved up to mid- or late August if the current weather pattern holds.

“We are really excited about the quality,” said Jon Ruel, president of Trefethen Vineyards in Napa. “It’s really the result of the fantastic weather we have had.”

Given last year’s massive crop, some wineries are feverishly trying to finish bottling and make sure their tanks are empty before this year’s crop arrives.

“We’re going to have to finish bottling after harvest,” said Urberg at Gloria Ferrer. “It’s a challenge we are facing. We just don’t have the time with the early harvest.”

Over at Healdsburg Custom Crush, production manger Brian Kobler took keys to his space on July 1 and has been working lengthy hours to ensure that it will be ready for harvest. The facility will cater to small producers that process 3 to 15 tons of grapes, which typically have to pay a surcharge for crush and barrel storage because of such smaller contracts.

“The last month of July has just been a whirlwind,” said Kobler, who is also the winemaker for Kobler Estate Winery. The facility’s goal this season was to crush 250 tons and it is already ahead of schedule with reservations for 180 tons.

Back at Game Farm, Vyborny echoed a familiar theme among vineyard managers trying to plan harvest amid a tight labor market. Finding new workers is especially difficult, as less migrant workers have come to the region for work. Like others, Vyborny said he has hired more people as full-time employees to work during harvest and to maintain the fields in the offseason. He now has 60 full-time workers.

“There’s no extra people,” he said.

His workers are paid based on the number of baskets they pick, known as the piece rate, which Vyborny estimated could end up around $24 per hour for some in the field on Wednesday.

Entry-level farmworkers in Napa Valley are typically hired for a minimum wage of $12 per hour, according to the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.