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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