The first day of the Sonoma County grape harvest got off to a promising and even whimsical start Monday morning.

Under gray skies, a vineyard outside Healdsburg yielded the region's first grapes for the 2011 vintage, a small batch of pinot noir destined for sparkling wine at J Vineyards and Winery.

"We're poised for a great harvest," said J winemaker Melissa Stackhouse, who noted the grapes harvested Monday are smaller, but "concentrated in flavor, and that's what we love."

Over the next two months, the trickle of grapes will turn into a flood as growers across the North Coast scramble to harvest the region's nearly $1 billion grape crop.

The stakes are high: Last year, falling grape prices and bad weather cost North Coast growers $100 million.

This year, the 128,000 acres of vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties are expected to yield less fruit than usual, but prices for grapes are up.

"This year, there's a little strengthening of prices. The crop may be down, but it may end up with revenue a little improved, given the size of the crop from what it would have been," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

In a brief ceremony at J Vineyards on Monday, Stackhouse was crowned Winemaker Queen, complete with a rose-colored cape, crown, scepter and lucky horseshoe eyeglasses.

About three-dozen winery employees, including owner Judy Jordan, paid homage to Stackhouse in a tongue-in-cheek ceremony that also included a blessing of the grapes.

"I love this time of year," Stackhouse told the assemblage after they blew plastic horns and toasted her with sparkling wine.

Grapes for sparkling wine are always the first to be picked, followed by clusters that mature in the next few weeks for other wines. Most Sonoma County wineries will not begin harvesting grapes for still wines on a large scale until the week of Sept. 11, Frey said.

Grapes play a critical role in Sonoma County's agricultural sector, generating about two-thirds of the county's total farm revenue. Every year, vintners transform the fruit into 10 to 12 million cases of wine that is sold around the world. The resulting economic bounty supports a wide range of businesses in the county, ranging from wineries and growers to their suppliers and lenders.

Frey noted the "last couple years have been pretty rough," given the vagaries of the market and weather.

"There's a little more optimism than there has been," he said. "Wine sales have been holding up. People are now coming back and buying grapes."

Varieties like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel will probably sell for 10 percent more than last year, according to Frey, and pinot should also do well.

Stackhouse said there's "a lot of hope, a lot of anticipation" about the harvest, which picks up speed this week and will probably come to an end in mid- to late October.

"I like the mystery, that element to what we do," said Stackhouse, who is embarking on her 18th harvest as a winemaker.

Despite the harvest coming later this year because of cooler weather and late rains, "the quality is up," said J Vineyards spokesman George Rose.

On the other hand, the conditions mean the crop could be 20 percent smaller than normal, he said.

The harvest at J kicked off at 5 a.m. Monday. About 1.5 tons of pinot noir grapes were harvested by late morning, Rose said.

"This is the first day of harvest," he said. "We will really start rockin' tomorrow morning."

Other sparkling wine producers are expected to follow suit this week or next.

The grapes for the champagne-style wines are harvested sooner and have lower sugar levels and higher acidity than those picked for still wines.

Rose said it will be another three to four weeks before grapes for still wines are ready in the cool Russian River Valley, where J's grapes are grown.

In the next couple months, growers will be watching the weather closely, hoping to avoid mildew and mold that can accompany intense fog, or excessive heat that can hinder the grapes.

"There's always a couple weather events that make us scurry to get the fruit in," Stackhouse said. "Where it goes from here is anybody's guess."