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North Coast grape harvest accelerates


Day and night, trucks filled with mounds of sun-ripened grapes are pouring into wineries across the North Coast as harvest accelerates to a frenzy.

This year's crop is both unusually early and large, growers say, straining wineries' capacity to process the incoming fruit.

"Everything statewide is ready all at once," said Lise Asimont, director of grower relations at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. "Every variety that we are concerned with in Sonoma County is being picked or scheduled to be picked. Russian River pinot, Russian River chardonnay, Alexander Valley cab, Dry Creek zinfandel — we're picking them all this week."

In Sonoma County, about 30 to 35 percent of the crop has been harvested, depending on the location and varietal, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.

The North Coast harvest got off to an unusually early start this year on Aug. 1, when the first grapes came in from Napa for sparkling wine. Growers and vintners will be harvesting at a fast and furious pace for the next four to six weeks, hoping to bring in their precious fruit before the fall rains arrive.

Some parts of the county are running three weeks early, while parts of the Russian River are two weeks ahead of schedule, Kruse said.

"You're getting pinot noir and chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and merlot all coming in at the same time, which is pretty atypical," she said. "Things are coming in definitely above average in terms of quantity."

Last year, growers pulled in $1.4 billion worth of grapes on the North Coast, surpassing the record of $1.1 billion in 2005. The Sonoma County crop was worth an estimated $583 million, up 68 percent from the previous year.

This year's crop is expected to be larger than average, but it's not yet expected to top the giant crop that was picked in 2012, when a record 266,000 tons of grapes were harvested in Sonoma County.

Some wineries still have juice in their tanks and barrels from last year's massive harvest, inhibiting their ability to accept the flood of fruit destined for this year's vintage.

Asimont said she fielded five or six phone calls Monday from grape growers who wanted to sell the winery their excess grapes. "It's a daily conversation for me," she said.

"I talked to one winery that said they'd gotten 10 or 12 calls today," said Glenn Proctor, partner and broker in Ciatti Company, a wine and grape brokerage.

As a result, prices for grapes on the bulk market are falling, said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Wine Brokerage. For example, a Sonoma County chardonnay that was selling for $1,700 per ton on the bulk market earlier this year is now selling for $1,000 or less. Pinot noir grapes that were fetching $2,000 per ton are now selling in the neighborhood of $1,500, he said.

"The demand is still there, but it's a space issue," Clements said.

Many wineries are scrambling to find fermentation space for a huge pinot noir crop, but custom crush wineries that normally handle the overflow are quickly filling up, said Phil Coturri, CEO of Enterprise Vineyards in Sonoma Valley. The vast majority of Coturri's winery clients produce wine from estate vineyards, so overages haven't been a problem for his business, he said.

"The crop is a good-size crop. Flavors are spectacular. The sugars are there with the hot weather we had a couple weeks ago, and now we're waiting for the acids to catch up," Coturri said. "We're just picking every day at this point."

While there were some early concerns about sunburn or botrytis, those issues have affected few grapes across the board, and fruit quality so far has been excellent, Kruse said.

After a cool, damp winter, the growing season was mild and dry, and then hot temperatures at the end of August accelerated harvest, said Jim Collins, chief viticulturist at E&J Gallo's Frei Brothers.

"If the way the grapes are tasting in the vineyards are any indication, we're going to have some of the most flavorful and complex wines of this decade coming from 2013," Collins said in an email.

Labor has been tight, but crews have been getting by, growers said. Some wineries and vineyards have switched to mechanical harvesting, easing the pressure. Coturri wished he had more workers to help with harvest.

"I am probably 15 percent less than I'd like to be, because labor is down about 15 percent as far as I'm seeing," Coturri said. "It is making harvesting a little more expensive than average, but it's moving right along."

A similar brand of managed chaos is afflicting Mendocino County, where pinot noir grapes in typically cooler parts of Anderson Valley are ripening before the grapes in the traditionally warmer areas, said Zac Robinson, owner of Husch Vineyards and president of the Mendocino WineGrowers.

"The normal sequence seems to be falling apart this year," Robinson said. "The way we like to see things happen isn't really playing out."

Even so, the excess grapes from a somewhat larger than normal crop up there are being absorbed in a region that has many new wineries, he said.

"There are not any substantial quantity of grapes left unsold," Robinson said.

In Napa, cabernet sauvignon is already making its way to the presses.

"It's extremely early to be picking cabernet 10 days into September," said Blake Wood, a vineyard manager at Beckstoffer Vineyards, which manages thousands of acres of vineyards in Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. "Usually it's the last week of September."

Early and heavy crops also have the trend in Lake County, where about half the white wine grapes have been harvested and wineries are beginning to bring in the reds. Yields and quality for the county's sauvignon blanc crop are looking good, said Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.

"It's looking like slightly above average in terms of crop size," Sommerfield said. "With the fruit ripening so fast, labor has been tight in the vineyard, although so far it has been adequate. The challenge for wineries is to be able to process the fruit fast enough to keep up."

Looking ahead, some farmers in Mendocino and Napa counties<NO1><NO> are concerned about rain clouds lurking in the forecast for this weekend and next week. <NO1><NO>Forecasters predict a 25 to 30 percent chance of rain in Sonoma County on Friday and Saturday, although the level of rainfall is expected to be very small, according to the Western Weather Group.

Heavier rain is forecast for next week, Kruse said.

"If that forecast holds true, you might see a rush of wineries that were on the fence about picking," she said.

At St. Francis Winery and Vineyards, cabernet sauvignon and merlot are almost at full maturity, but cool weather last week slowed the pace of ripening, said Christopher Silva, president and CEO.

"That brief lull points to a busy October," Silva said. "I told the team this morning, this is Mother Nature's version of hurry up and wait."