2018 North Coast grape harvest draws to a bountiful close

Ideal weather allowed winemakers time needed to schedule their picks and for grapes to ripen to optimal level.|

As she walked the Sallyvine Vineyard in Geyserville on Wednesday morning, winemaker Alison Crowe smiled as she talked about the 2018 North Coast grape harvest, which was all about the hang time.

Mother Nature threw few curveballs their way this growing season, giving winemakers as much time as they needed to schedule their picks and allow the fruit to ripen to the optimal level before being trucked to the winery.

“The entire 2018 growing season was mild and measured, not a lot of heat spikes, just enough rain to keep things growing to create healthy vines,” said Crowe, director of winemaking for Plata Wine Partners in Napa.

Crowe’s rosy sentiment is shared by other local winemakers as the North Coast grape harvest wraps up for the most part this week. Wineries have locked in their final picks for late red varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and petite syrah - though a few may linger into next week.

Preliminary figures for this year’s regional harvest won’t be released until early in 2019. The crop last year was valued at $1.5 billion from vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

The 2018 crop is expected to be larger because some wineries have received 10 to 15 percent more fruit than their typical annual harvest.

However, there is concern about an oversupply of grapes given the leveling off of wine sales.

Robert McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, said earlier this month, “The question is declining (wine) consumption. … Is this a short-term or a long-term thing?”

The cabernet sauvignon picked by machines on Wednesday will go into wines that will be available in about two years, including on the shelves of Costco stores. “I think what consumers are really going to enjoy out of the 2018 harvest is the wonderful ripe flavors without super-high alcohol,” Crowe said.

Vintners said they could not have asked for better weather. The season had sufficient winter and spring rainfall into bud break, which marks the beginning of the growing cycle. A mild spring with no frost allowed those buds to grow into tiny flowers and then into fruit set with few issues.

Temperate weather during the summer - without any major heat spikes - allowed the grapes to mature for the first pick that occurred on Aug. 15. Those mild temperatures continued into the fall, which only saw one significant spate of rainy weather, which quickly passed through the area at the end of September.

“This year, it really was a winemaker’s dream. They got to consciously choose exactly what they wanted,” said Kelly MacLeod, director of operations at Hudson Vineyards in Napa.

Winemaker Carol Shelton of Santa Rosa said she was initially worried when the rainfall swept through and dumped 2 to 3 inches on some local spots. She specializes in zinfandel, a variety that is susceptible to rot after rains.

“We had some wonderful breezes afterward,” Shelton said, which quickly dried the fruit. “We just dodged a really big bullet.”

Shelton will receive her last zinfandel fruit today from a vineyard just north of Ukiah.

“There is a depth of flavor that you don’t get until you have a longer hang time,” she said of the grapes.

Joe Freeman, winemaker at the Ron Rubin Winery in Sebastopol, said he also is bullish on the harvest this year.

“The wines that are fermenting are really blowing me away with their potential,” Freeman said.

The Rubin winery made its last pick on Oct. 23 after its seven-week harvest season. Last year, it was only five weeks. In 2017, a Labor Day weekend heat wave forced all area wineries to speed up their picks with temperatures topping 100 degrees.

Freeman said the pinot noir and chardonnay from the Russian River Valley “were really bright with high acidity,” a flavor profile typically not common for the wine region.

“We are likely to see longevity and freshness in the wines,” said Freeman, who has worked more than 20 harvests.

Popular varieties such as chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon all should be more plentiful this year, said Hugh Reimers, president of Foley Family Wines in Santa Rosa, the 20th-largest wine company in the country.

Some large buyers, however, have rejected grapes they said were damaged from smoke taint during the summer’s Mendocino Complex wildfires, the largest fires based on acreage in state history. The blazes were centered in Mendocino and Lake counties.

Others in the wine industry said the fruit rejections are more the result of the oversupply of grapes rather than smoke-damaged grapes. North Coast vineyards provided 467,157 tons of grapes in 2017, about 1 percent above the 10-year average, but a 7 percent decrease from 2016.

Reimers expressed concern about the broad rejection of fruit by some buyers in Lake County. Foley Family Wines owns the 23,000-acre Langtry Estate in Lake County that harvests estate vineyards to make its own wine.

“There are issues, but not across the board,” Reimers said. “The blanket approach to rejecting fruit is pretty extreme, in my opinion.”

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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