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Beginning at 4 a.m., under electric light, scores of workers scramble through the west Sonoma County vineyards of Dutton Ranch to pick ripened chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.

In a ritual that is being played out on thousands of acres along the North Coast, the harvest is once again under way.

Over the past week, as the temperatures have climbed in Wine Country, the harvest has swung into high gear. The crush is here.

?We?re picking grapes now fast and furious,? said grape grower Steve Dutton. ?We were doing a little here and there. Now we?re going big time.?

Bins of grapes are being whisked off to wineries to be separated from stems, crushed and fermented.

So far, the weather has been cooperative since the crush got off to a slow start five weeks ago with the harvest of grapes used for sparkling wine. With just a fraction of the county?s $400 million yearly crop in, growers report the grapes are good and the yields are decent.

Now, the pace is picking up and tensions are rising.

The harvest is unfolding during a challenging time for the wine industry ? what some brokers describe as one of the most difficult periods in more than three decades.

The recession and consumers? retreat from high-priced wines has led to softening demand and the likelihood that tons of sweetening grapes will not find buyers.

?It?s a very good year for grape quality. The sad irony is, there are people who will run the risk of leaving fruit on the vine, not picked, very high-quality fruit,? said Duff Bevill, a Dry Creek Valley grape grower and vineyard manager.

The spot market for grapes, meaning for those that are not already under contract for sale, has essentially dried up.

?Harvest is always a stressful time, with long hours and a lot of night picking,? said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

Growers who don?t have all their crops sold have the added worry of trying to find a buyer.

The good news is that the vast majority of grapes ? what Frey estimated at 90 percent, or slightly less ? are under contract.

But for those growers who don?t have a guaranteed purchaser and are selling on the open market, ?there isn?t much activity,? he said. ?Wineries are reluctant to buy anything.?

Analysts say the bulk market and retail shelves are currently ruled by brands perceived as bargains.

And consumers are getting deals on good-quality wines from past vintages, something that is not expected to change soon.

Wineries in general, especially those that have high-priced brands, are still trying to whittle down inventories, according to Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage, a large California grape broker.

?They are waiting as long as possible to buy and some are buying fewer grapes based on extremely conservative sales projections, with the intention of buying wine in bulk if sales prove stronger than projected,? Bill Turrentine said.

?Nobody in our economy wants to get caught buying extra fruit,? said Glen Proctor, a partner in the Ciatti Company, another large grape and wine broker. ?It?s an extremely thin market. Most of the large buyers in the North Coast have continued to watch from the sidelines.

?This isn?t a year to try to make money. It?s just a year to try and survive,? he observed.

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Some growers who have not found a home for their grapes are offering them at roughly half the price they would have gotten last year, or if they were under contract.

?One e-mail I got recently was Russian River pinot noir offered at $1,500 a ton. That?s about 50 percent of market value, if you signed up to sell it six or eight months ago,? said Eric Stern, winemaker at Landmark Vineyards in Kenwood.

He said it?s a well-known appellation that tends to command high prices. But he turned down the offer and others because he does not need to expand his roster of growers.

?Some years, wineries are short of grapes. Other years, the supply is perfectly balanced,? he said. ?Years like this, the supply is too great.?

The oversupply in past seasons, such as 2005, was due to nature?s bounty producing an abundant crop.

Since then, the grape crop in Sonoma County has shrunk for three years in a row.

Sonoma County?s 61,000 acres of grapes produced 168,208 tons last year, down from 198,532 tons in 2007.

Last year, a dry spring, numbing frosts and hot windy weather early in the growing season all contributed to less yield. But strong demand helped soften the blow for many growers, driving prices to the highest ever in Sonoma County.

The average price for Sonoma County grapes was $2,235 a ton in 2008, exceeding the previous high of $2,158 set in 2001.

Only Napa County had higher grape prices, at $3,390 per ton, according to the state?s annual Preliminary Grape Crush report.

This year, Frey is predicting a ?normal? yield in Sonoma County of about 200,000 tons of grapes.

The forecast produced almost a sigh of relief among brokers who had heard predictions of another bumper crop and feared it would make it even tougher to sell grapes amid the market decline.

If grape growers can?t find a buyer, some could choose the option of doing a custom crush themselves and selling the wine in bulk later. But that means added expense and trying to gauge future demand.

Growers say the summer of 2009 had a nice mix of warm and cool days, leading to a longer growing season and optimum hang time to develop mature flavors for high-end wine.

Daylight temperatures in the mid-80s, and cool nights with dissipating fog are ?pretty darn nice,? said grower and vineyard manager Bevill.

?Temperatures that are comfortable for humans are probably the best for growing grapes,? he said.

Of course the final chapter for the 2009 harvest will have to wait until it?s over, at the end of October and perhaps even into early November.

Prolonged heat spells ? a possibility during the North Coast Indian summer ? can cause the grapes to ripen quickly, increasing pressure on growers and wineries to handle the volume all at once.

Any rain, with a potential to lead to rot, also can change the picture.

The scattered showers that passed through the area Saturday morning were not expected to harm the grapes, however. Only about a tenth of an inch of rain fell, and that was followed by a dry, windy afternoon that quickly dried off the fruit, said Hector Bedolla, vineyard manager for La Crema winery in Windsor.

?We?ve still got a month and a half. Mother Nature can rear her ugly head any day. There?s still that threat out there,? said Steve Sangiacomo, whose Sonoma Valley-based Sangiacomo Family Vineyards has about 1,500 acres of Sonoma Coast and Carneros grapes it sells to more than 60 wineries.

?The quality looks good so far. The fruit?s clean and the flavors are maturing nicely,? Sangiacomo said of his picked grapes.

With only an estimated 10 percent of the harvest completed so far, wineries are cautious about making predictions.

But there are reports that the North Coast chardonnay yield could be as much as 10percent above the five-year average.

Other varietals are different.

While the quality of the grapes is pleasing, some of his pinot noir vineyards are heavy and others are light, said Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Wine Estates.

?I never like to predict what the harvest will bring,? he said. ?When the grapes have all rolled across the scale and are in the tank, that?s when I?ll tell you how good the quality is and how big the crop is.?

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