Ron DeNatale?s Healdsburg vines are supposed to be picked clean this time of year, the plump grapes long since crushed and juice safely fermenting in winery tanks.
Instead, his petite sirah grapes are a ghastly sight, shriveled and rotting on the vine like untold tons of other grapes across the North Coast this year.
?Luckily, we got most of the stuff in before it rained,? DeNatale said.
The soft economy, sluggish high-end wine sales and unusual mid-harvest rains have conspired to bring the 2009 grape harvest to an unceremonious end for many grape growers.
As the harvest draws to a close this week, many growers are heaving a sigh of relief. Most of the crop was harvested before the rains interrupted what had been a nearly ideal growing season. And most growers had contracts to sell their fruit at last year?s record prices.
But many growers without grape contracts were unable to find buyers for their fruit. Some were offered such paltry prices that they were either forced to crush the grapes themselves or leave them to rot on the vine, a sorrowful sight for one of the nation?s most prized crops.
?Between the economy and not have any contract and the rain hitting just as the fruit was ripening, it pretty much did us in,? said Lyle Hatten, owner of Silverwolf Vineyards in Kenwood.
Virtually all of Hatten?s four acres of merlot, 16 to 18 tons worth, succumbed to mold after no buyers stepped forward. The heavy rain in mid-October, followed by several days of humid, warm weather gave the botrytis mold a foothold in Hatten?s vineyard. By last week, the sugar levels in the grapes, diluted by the rain, inched back up, but the mold was growing faster and destroyed any chance of salvaging some of the crop.
?By the time we picked on Friday, there was a lot of mold,? Hatten said. ?It was everywhere.?
Estimates of how much of the North Coast?s grape crop will go unharvested this year are hard to come by.
The increase in activity at custom crush facilities is a clear sign that more growers lacked buyers for their fruit and are turning it into wine themselves, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
?It?s less clear how much got left out there,? Frey said.
Shannon Gunier, executive director of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, estimates about 20 percent of that county?s crop may be left on the vine because sellers never showed up. It was a wake-up call for many Lake County growers and a sign to some that lean times lie ahead.
?It?s not business as usual,? Gunier said. ?Some people are thinking it will bounce back, but we don?t think it will.?
Brian Clements, a grape broker with the Turrentine Brokerage in Novato, said the total amount of grapes left on the vine is tiny compared to the North Coast?s overall crop. Last year, growers in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties harvested 356,000 tons of grapes valued at $860 million.
?I would say there?s still a couple thousand tons out there ? a very, very, very small percentage,? Clements said.
The vast majority of the uncontracted fruit wasn?t left on the vine, but rather was sold to wineries at low prices or turned into wine by the growers, often through innovative partnerships with wineries and custom crush facilities, he said.