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The 2010 wine grape harvest got underway at 3 a.m. in pre-dawn darkness at Hunter Farms, making the Glen Ellen vineyard the first of the pack for three years running.

Chris Bowen, vineyard manager of Hunter Farms, said the reason the grapes in this vineyard are the quickest to ripen on the North Coast is because of the warm climate coupled with the specific type of the pinot noir grapes.

This year's harvest is running approximately two to three weeks behind due to weeks of cooler temperatures and an unusually persistent layer of heavy, wet fog.

But there was no sign of fog today, a first in several weeks, and the forecast calls for temperatures in the 90s for the next several days.

Victor Pureco, on the picking crew, was wearing what resembled a miner's hat with the flashlight guiding him as he cut the fruit from the vine. He said it was "grueling" to get up at 2:30 a.m. to start picking at 3 a.m.

Pureco's 78-year-old father worked beside him, with both clipping fruit with a sharp, metal hook. They worked quickly because they are paid by the ton. Each hopes to earn $200 for their day of picking.

"Light crop" Pureco said, "because cold weather."

In the vineyard you could hear broken English, Spanish, and by sunrise, the crow of a rooster nearby.

The five acres of pinot noir picked will be routed to Gloria Ferrer and eventually bottled as sparkling wine.

Mumm Napa in Rutherford will begin selective picking Tuesday and Stetson-Greene Vineyards in Healdsburg will follow suit on Wednesday.

Sonoma County is expected to pick 190,000 to 195,000 tons of grapes this year, down from last year's take of 216,000, according to Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commision.

"The reason is we have smaller berries because of the early, cold weather," he said.

Sparkling wine producers typically reel in their grapes well before the threat of rain, and this makes them less frantic than still wine producers whose grapes require more time on the vine.

Bob Iantosca, who produces sparkling wine at Sonoma's Gloria Ferrer, said "We're used to (a quick harvest) and we're set up for it to be fast and furious."

Tom Tiburzi of Domaine Chandon in Yountille, added: "The sparkling wine harvest is always condensed."

Just what do these sparkling wine producers do to prep for a "fast and furious" harvest?

"One key is to have seasonal winery staff lined up in order to have multiple shifts, for example, three eight hour shifts for 24-hour coverage," Tiburzi said. "Another key is to have grape harvest field crews and equipment lined up to get the fruit to the winery."

Tiburzi said with a short harvest, wineries often will be competing for crews and equipment. "Getting picking scheduled with growers and contractors is important," he said. "The better the winery is in predicting when they want fruit picked, the earlier they can schedule a specific date for needing resources."

As for the still wine producers, the grape harvest may be a sprint or a marathon. Winemakers say it's too hard to call even with a forecast of weather in the 90s for the next several days.

"The still wine harvest might also be condensed in order to get all the fruit in before the rain starts," Tiburzi said. "But we might have a spectacular &‘Indian Summer' so there's no certainty yet."

Adam Siduri of Siduri Wines in Santa Rosa doesn't expect picking to get underway for his still wines until the first or second week of September, and he's concerned about the chaos of everything ripening at the same time. He said 2006 was a condensed harvest, but not because of cool weather. That year a big crop was to blame. Siduri said in 1999 the harvest was also fast-paced because picking was delayed until October.

"We're considering renting extra tanks for harvest this year," Siduri said. "Condensed harvests are awful, and once you've had one you long for a longer, more drawn out harvest. Of course, once you've had one of those, you long for a condensed one. It's like pulling a band-aid off fast or slow, it's awful either way."

Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.