The grape harvest for 2013 is pretty much over in Sonoma County, but for winemakers like Santa Rosa's Carol Shelton and her husband Mitch Mackenzie, the work is only about halfway finished.
"People will say 'Oh, you must be so relieved this is your quiet time,'" Mackenzie said of the wrap-up of harvest. "But really in this business, when you're small there is no quiet time. You're making it or you're selling it. Because if you're not making it, the spare time you're on the road."
Shelton, in her 35th year in the business and 14th harvest making wine under her own Carol Shelton Wines label, said she has been wrapped up in harvest madness since mid-August, when the first whites came in. She expects to get the last of her zinfandels in this weekend or by the start of next week, but that leaves at least two more months of intense work.
"It slows down a little" once the grapes stop coming in, she said this week, surrounded by dozens of huge plastic bins containing tons of fermenting grapes, "but you've still got to press and you've got to get the barrels ready. With barrels you can't just take a barrel and fill it — you've got to prep the barrel and steam it up and make sure it's clean, and for one tank that's 20 barrels and so that's 20 times the work."
That work should be done by mid-November, she said, followed by another month of bottling the 2012 vintage, all the while making sales calls and monitoring the progress of the newly made 2013 wine.
Only then, by sometime in early December, can she think about resting.
"I'll be finished with that and feel very relieved and ready to party," she said.
The North Coast harvest got off to an unusually early start this year on Aug. 1, when the first grapes came in from Napa for sparkling wine. Eleven weeks later, the harvest in Sonoma County is as much as 95 percent done, roughly three weeks before the usual ending date, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. It's too early to get an exact figure for the harvest, she said, but it was clearly an above-average year and may equal last year's strong 267,000 tons.
"It's really a fantastic growing season," she said, "really unexpected after last year … it's rare that we see two great seasons back to back."
It appears the season was equally good for all regions and varietals, she said, suggesting that 2013 will be remembered as a particularly good year. Even a little rain in recent weeks failed to damage the grapes because it was always followed by warm, windy weather, holding off mold that can ruin the end of harvest.
Shelton said she, too, was pleased by the quality of the fruit she has received. She's particularly high on the petite sirah coming out of Dry Creek Valley, but she said almost everything she got was good.
"I am amazed how little rot there was," she said. "Partly that's a tribute to the growers, how well they've done thinning and dropping rot, but partly it's we've had perfect weather."
Like many small producers, Shelton does not have much help though the madness — just three additional employees, including the two who mind the tasting room. That means every employee needs to be ready to step in during harvest and crush.