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Early, quick harvest means few rain worries for local grape growers (w/video)

Jose Magdaleno drives a grape harvester to pick cabernet sauvignon grapes for Constellation Brands, in a vineyard along Chalk Hill Road, east of Healdsburg, on Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD)

BILL SWINDELL, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The threat of rain in mid-October would typically have winemakers and vineyard managers scrambling as they look to limit any damage caused by severe rot or other moisture-related harm to the North Coast’s most valuable crop.

But the exepected rainfall is more of a minor inconvenience due to the fact that most grape growers are done or about to finish this season’s harvest.

Thanks to early picking that started at the end of July, about 90 percent of the harvest is complete in Sonoma County, a point that in most years wouldn’t come for two more weeks.

“The short version is our Sonoma properties are pretty much done,” said Andrea Smalling, chief marketing officer for Foley Family Wines. The company still has some late-harvest semillon to be picked at vineyards in the Chalk Hill region, but even the coming rain is a blessing for that fruit, as it spurs what growers call “noble rot” that allows the grapes to shed water to make a more flavorful sweet wine.

“That is OK because if it rains, then you get a few dry days, it actually encourages the additional growth of botrytis and a little rot. So, that is actually a good thing,” Smalling said.

About 95 percent of the crop has been picked in Napa County.

A cold front bringing a few showers will come into the region Tuesday night and linger through Wednesday morning, dumping about 0.10 of an inch of rain, said Ken Clark, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.

A second storm front is expected Friday, though it is bringing fairly light rainfall, Clark said. Temperatures will struggle to break past 70 degrees for the rest of the week. In essence, fall weather has finally arrived.

“In a normal year we would be right in the thick of it,” said Steve Sangiacomo, a partner at Sangiacomo Family Vineyards. By day’s end, the Sonoma-based grape grower expected to have just 3 percent of its harvest unfinished.

“This [rain] would be a big issue in a normal harvest, ” Sangiacomo said.

The grapes remaining to be picked — cabernet sauvignon and merlot — have thicker skins that will be able to handle the rain better as opposed to more fragile varietals such as chardonnay, Sangiacomo said.

The main issue for some wineries right now is clearing up tank space to handle the remaining grapes to be crushed, he added.

Many winemakers in the area said they are glad to be done. Both Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville and Jordan Vineyard and Winery in Healdsburg have finished their harvest for the seasons, spokeswomen for the wineries said.

This year’s harvest was noted for its compressed schedule as well as varietals not following their typical sequential picking order. For example, Jordan Vineyard and Winery completed about 85 percent of its harvest this year in 21 days, according to spokeswoman Lisa Mattson. Also, for the first time since 2004, the winery picked its Alexander Valley merlot before its Russian River chardonnay.

This year’s crop yield is about average, growers say, less than last year’s record-breaking crop, valued at $603 million in Sonoma County. Officials said the quality of this year’s crop appears to be excellent as late winter rains provided enough moisture prior to bud break and temperatures have remained moderate with the absence of heat spikes.

“We have had a fantastic growing season,” said Ben Vyborny, vineyard manager for Vyborny Vineyard Management Co., which farms about 1,000 acres of grapes across the area.

Still, some have a little more work to do. Constellation Brands Inc. should have picked by Tuesday night about 90 percent of its grapes in Sonoma County, or about 1,300 acres, said Tom Gore, the company’s director of vineyards for Sonoma and Mendocino counties. All of its 150-acre crop in Mendocino County should be in by day’s end as well.

Gore said any delay from the storms will likely be inconsequential, especially if it dries quickly afterward, allowing him the flexibility to not pick in the rain if he feels it would pose a problem for his crews or harvesting machinery.

“If I had my druthers, I would prefer to pick it all before the rain,” Gore said.

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