Grape harvest under way in Sonoma County

  • J Winery founder and president Judy Jordan, left, blesses the grapes with sparkling wine as Melissa Stackhouse, vice president of winemaking, watches during the blessing of the grapes ceremony marking the first day of harvest at J Winery, in Healdsburg, on Monday, August 22, 2011.

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.

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