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Bad weather vexed grape growers with late start, light yields

  • Matt Wilson, a winemaker with David Cofarro Vineyard and Winery in the Dry Creek Valley fills wine barrels with petite syrah picked last week.

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."

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