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Harvest heats up


The merlot grapes had come from across the valley, picked early Monday on green slopes of vines and clustered oak trees.

Later that morning workers and stainless steel machines removed stems and sorted out the bad fruit at Matanzas Creek Winery in Bennett Valley southeast of Santa Rosa. Then the merlot was piped to a large steel tank, nearby others containing chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and other varietals that will make up the vintages of 2009.

?We should have everything in within three weeks,? said Alex Reble, an assistant winemaker for the winery owned by Jackson Family Wines. To date, he said, ?we?re having a successful harvest.?

The North Coast harvest enters its eighth week after a weekend of triple-digit heat. But winemakers and grape growers say the hot weather was short-lived and did little more than give grapes an extra push toward maturity.

?I don?t think it was a hindrance at all,? said Jim Murphy, a vineyard owner in Alexander Valley.

The high temperatures accelerated harvest for a few days, but this week?s cooler weather likely will allow time for growers and wineries to play catch up.

The heat ?puts a strain on the wineries to get all the fruit in in a timely fashion,? said Murphy. ?But they?re pretty good at finding a way to accommodate all the growers.?

The harvest is about 25 to 30 percent complete, but things will pick up substantially this week as the bulk of the chardonnay crop starts rolling in, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission.

The harvest remains about two weeks behind last year?s schedule, largely because the summer wasn?t as hot as last year and the crop is bigger. The larger the crop, the longer it takes the vines to ripen the fruit, Frey said.

White grapes like sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are ripening significantly faster than the thicker-skinned reds like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, Frey said.

This is a change from recent years, when the crush was compressed and the harvest of white and red grapes often overlapped, stressing wineries.

But this year the pace of harvest has been even and steady, just like the industry likes it.

?It?s kind of returned to what we remember as normal,? Frey said.

The expectation remains for an average-sized crop this year for Sonoma County?s 61,000 acres of vineyards. Frey estimates 200,000 tons of grapes will be harvested in the county this year, an 18 percent increase over last year?s 169,000 tons.

In these tight economic times, winemakers are cautious about buying too much fruit. As a result, some growers may have trouble selling their grapes this year.

Pete Opatz, a viticulturist for Silverado Premium Properties, said the company has completed the harvest for about half of its 5,000 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties.

The area?s pinot noir crop has been lighter than expected, he said. As a result, some wineries have been willing to make last-minute deals for more such grapes.

On the other hand, the chardonnay crop has proven larger than usual, and a larger crop takes longer to ripen.

?It is unusual to have this much chardonnay out this late,? Opatz said.

The larger crop also makes it less likely that wineries will need more chardonnay grapes from growers without contracts, he said.

Both winemakers and growers said the grape clusters are ripening nicely and should finish well, as long as the rain stays away.

?It?ll be a big week of harvest,? said Frey. ?They?ll be quite a bit of activity. We have a long ways to go.?

Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this story.