The Sonoma County grape harvest is off to its slowest start in more than a decade, moving forward in fits and starts as anxious growers hope for warmer days to ripen their sun-loving fruit.
First, mid-summer rains interfered with pollination, leaving less fruit hanging on the vines. Now, a cool summer has delayed ripening of the valuable clusters that emerged.
So far, only about 2 percent of the county's $400 million grape crop has been harvested, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. Normally, harvest is a quarter to halfway over by mid-September, he said.
Frey can't remember a time in the last decade when the beginning of harvest was so pokey.
"I think the pace will pick up. It's just we've got to get started," Frey said.
Some growers were expecting to pick grapes early this week, but postponed plans when temperatures dropped over the weekend and slowed the ripening.
"The entire North Coast grape crop is about three weeks late. We really haven't had a summer," said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage Group.
Across the board, the 2011 grape crop could be 10 percent smaller than an average year, Clements said. And the shortage comes at an inopportune time, when wine sales in the luxury market were beginning to pick up, he said.
"It's frustrating, because wineries and growers could use more grapes, and they just aren't there," Clements said. "If we had more fruit, we could sell it, and more grapes could be made into wine."
Sauvignon blanc grapes are among the hardest hit. In the Alexander Valley, Geyser Peak Winery expects the size of its sauvignon blanc crop to drop 80 percent, compared to an average year, said Ondine Chattan, director of winemaking.
"During bloom when the flowers turn into berries, we had bad weather events," Chattan said. "The crop that was normally 4 tons to the acre was eight-tenths of a ton per acre this year. ... It means there isn't going to be the same volume of supply from Alexander Valley sauvignon blanc."
The Sonoma County grape harvest began Aug. 22, when J Vineyards and Winery began harvesting fruit destined for sparkling wine.
Geyser Peak was one of the first to begin harvesting grapes for still wine, gathering small amounts of sauvignon blanc from the Alexander Valley last week. But on the positive side, the longer hang time on the vine has enabled the grapes to develop more complex flavors, Chattan said.
"It smells like heaven," Chattan said. "Because it was a mild season, you get nice consistency. Slow and steady is always good for quality."
In the Russian River Valley, Sonoma-Cutrer winery has been picking and processing chardonnay grapes. The winery's chardonnay crop is expected to be down by 25 percent from normal this year, said Mick Schroeter, director of winemaking.
About 20 women sorted through 50 tons of chardonnay grapes at Sonoma-Cutrer on Tuesday, removing small clusters that were hit with botrytis, or bunch rot, a concern for vintners throughout the county. The condition is caused by cool, damp conditions.
"This time of year it takes a lot of patience," Schroeter said. "It's a bit of a waiting game at the moment."
And with the cool weather delaying harvest, there's a concern that everything's going to ripen at the same time, creating traffic jams in crushers and fermenters later this fall.
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