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Bad weather vexed grape growers with late start, light yields


Grape growers on the North Coast waited for a harvest that seemed like it would never begin. But now, with the annual grape harvest drawing to a close this week, they are eager for it to end.

Unforgiving weather resulted in one of the toughest harvests in recent memory. The grape crop could be at least 20 percent smaller than normal, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. If that prediction holds, it would be the smallest Sonoma County grape harvest in a decade.

Early indicators were that the crop would be light, but the small crop kept getting smaller, Frey said.

"Everybody's ready for harvest to wrap up," Frey said. "It's been a long, hard season for a lot of growers."

First, unseasonable rain in June interrupted bud break, resulting in clusters that held fewer grapes. Then, cool summer temperatures delayed ripening, shortening the harvest window by several weeks. And finally, early October rains threatened to turn grapes to rot, sending pickers into high gear.

The shortage hit some growers harder than others, like Bret Munselle, an owner of Munselle Vineyards. His total crop was 35 percent smaller than normal, and both his cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc crops were half their normal size.

"I can't speak for everyone in Alexander Valley, but all the growers I've talked to are pretty much in the same boat," Munselle said. "With all these things put together, it's going to be a difficult year financially."

The short supply of grapes led to higher prices on the spot market, but that did little for Sonoma County growers who had few if any grapes to sell after meeting contractual obligations.

But while growers in Sonoma County suffered the shortages, their neighbors in Mendocino and Lake counties fared better, as wineries looked to northern vineyards to fill the bins.

"We're kind of the bright spot in the whole thing for once," said Shannon Gunier, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. "We dodged the bullet."

In Lake County, the county's 40,000 tons of grapes grow at higher altitudes, resulting in drier, less foggy weather after the rains, which helped stall the spread of botrytis.

Prices were higher, and everyone who wanted to sell their fruit had a buyer, with growers reporting higher quality fruit, Gunier said.

The crop size in Mendocino County also was an estimated 20 percent smaller than normal, with about 2 percent of the crop lost to botrytis, said Rich Schaefers, chairman of the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission. But growers there are likely to be profitable, in part because the shortage of grapes in Sonoma County also drove buyers up their way.

"Our company probably sold 30 percent more fruit than last year," said Schaefers, who also is general manager of Beckstoffer Vineyards Mendocino. "So it's funny that the crop size may have been down, but a larger percentage of it was actually sold . . . And consumption has improved a little bit. The wineries' inventories are shorter, and they just needed more fruit."

Back in Sonoma County, most growers are finished with harvest or will wrap up picking this week, ending a 10-week, head-spinning crush that began Aug. 22.

Some growers still have plenty of fruit left unpicked, like Glenn Alexander, owner of Bacchus Vineyard Management, who's about 80 percent of the way through harvest.

"But the fact is, the 20 percent that's remaining, I'm not sure how much of that we'll harvest because of the botrytis and the disease issues," Alexander said.

Alexander estimated that he lost 1 to 2 percent of his total crop to botrytis. His Russian River and Sonoma Coast vineyards yielded 25 percent less pinot noir grapes than last year, and grenache came in at about half the size.

"It's one of those years, no one's ever seen anything like it before," Alexander said.

Crop loss varied from vineyard to vineyard, and grapes picked after the October rains were the most vulnerable.

"There was quite a bit of rot," said David Coffaro, owner and winemaker at David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery in Geyserville. "The merlot didn't come in at all."

His total crop was 25 percent smaller than normal, and he lost 15 to 20 percent to botrytis. Even so, like other growers, he was optimistic about the flavors in his grapes and the quality of the wines they would produce.

"The best way that I've learned over all these years, is to taste the grapes," Coffaro said. "If it tastes good, use it."

Winemakers said that although some of the late-ripening varietals were harvested at lower-than-ideal sugar levels, the grapes developed complex flavors after a long hang on the vine.

"We've got some pretty awesome fruit, so in the end I'm very satisfied with the vintage," said Ondine Chattan, director of winemaking at Geyser Peak Winery.

Mostly, everyone is ready to be done with 2011 and move on.

"My grandmother told me once, &‘You're not a real farmer until you can say, &‘There's always next year,'<TH>" Munselle said.