Wineries prepare for harvest to begin next week

  • John Erbe, a viticulturlist with J Winery, checks the sugar levels of pinot noir grapes on Thursday. Erbe believes they will start the harvest season on Monday morning.

There's excitement in the air as winemakers across Sonoma County hurry through final preparations, or catch their last bit of rest, before the onslaught begins.

The North Coast grape harvest is expected to kick off next week, several weeks later than normal as a result of cool spring weather that slowed the maturation of the region's $1 billion grape crop.

"I have the pre-harvest butterflies a little bit, and a general sense of hope that you have before harvest," said Melissa Stackhouse, winemaker for J Vineyards & Winery of Healdsburg. "Because who knows, it could be really stellar. Harvest unfolds as we're going through it, and that's the nice mystery about it."

In the wee hours of Monday morning, grape pickers will set out at J Vineyards to begin picking pinot noir and chardonnay grapes used to make sparkling wines.

The winery expects to harvest about 20 percent fewer grapes than normal this year, spokesman George Rose said. Rains in June simply knocked the flowers off the vine, so there were fewer berries in each cluster, he said.

"Our winemaking team definitely is gearing up for what they like to refer to as war," Rose said. "It's a very grueling process."

Despite the cool temperatures, vineyards in Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley have accumulated about five or six more days of warm temperatures than the same time last year, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

"We're going to have the long hang time that winemakers want for flavor depth, but I think we're in a better position than last year," Frey said.

The lighter crop is making some grapes ripen faster on the vine, said Chris Bowen, vineyard manager for Hunter Farms in Sonoma Valley. With fewer grapes, the sugar produced by the leaves makes its way inside the grape faster, he said.

Bowen estimates Hunter Farms will start picking pinot noir grapes for sparkling wines in the middle or end of next week for Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards.

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