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Sonoma County’s 2017 vintage year: a trifecta of challenges

Under the glow of artificial light and a smoky sunrise, vineyard workers pick a chardonnay block at Bowtie Vineyards in Healdsburg, Friday Sept. 1, 2017, picked for J Vineyards and Winery. Grape growers are scurrying to get the grapes in due to the heat wave. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017

PEG MELNIK,

With the bulk of wine grapes on the North Coast now harvested and in the cellar, winemakers are reflecting on what is being viewed as the triple threat of the 2017 vintage. The wet spring gave way to the Labor Day heat spike, capped off by October’s devastating wildfires.

While the quality of the vintage is too early to call, lower yields are expected across the board.

The big surprise? The Labor Day heat spike, pushing 105 degrees F. for three consecutive days in Sonoma & Napa counties, proved to be a silver lining for some.

“In retrospect, the heat wave was probably a good thing as it moved ripening along,” said Fel winemaker Ryan Hodgins. “We would likely still have had fruit on the vine at the time of the fires, if not for the heat.”

Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol also had its fruit harvested long before the wildfires.

“The grapes were already mature before the heat spike,” said winemaker David Munksgard. “It was a matter of harvesting through the heat spike, always considering the health and welfare of our harvest crew.”

The biggest challenge for Munksgard was the near record winter rain, followed by the late spring rain.

“It gave the vines way too much growth, producing water in the root zone,” he said. “The vines seemingly did not want to stop growing. We had to do much, much more leaf pulling and canopy hedging than normal to get [sun]light into the fruit zone.”

In addition to troubleshooting heavy rains, some vintners also had to deal with a labor shortage after the wildfires.

Vintner Nick Goldschmidt of his namesake winery in Healdsburg said one of the most wrenching aspects of the year was reeling in enough harvest workers in the aftermath of the fires.

“I only had two vineyards to pick and that was bad enough,” Goldschmidt said. “I am sure that other wineries were a lot less fortunate.”

The wildfires also posed a logistical challenge for David Ramey of Healdsburg’s Ramey Cellars.

“We picked our last grapes the night the fires broke out, October 8—Hyde merlot,” Ramey said. “Chris Hyde couldn’t deliver them Monday the 9t because Highway 101 was closed, so he stored them in his winery overnight and delivered the next day.”

The winemakers said 2017 will be remembered as the vintage of the wildfires, but it actually had a trio of challenges wrapped into one growing season. That said, they aren’t discouraged. Ramey, for one, said his wines are already showing well in the barrel.