Grape harvest kicks off with early pick in Sonoma County

The wine grape harvest kicked off in Sonoma County early Friday morning in the Russian River Valley with a season that has started earlier than expected.|

Under a light marine layer, the wine grape harvest kicked off in Sonoma County early Friday morning in the Russian River Valley with a season that has started earlier than expected and should yield a smaller crop.

Work crews were out at 5 a.m. at a vineyard at the Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery east of Forestville to pick an anticipated 10 tons of pinot noir grapes that will go into sparkling wine for the winery.

“This is the earliest we have ever done it,” said Jim Pratt, owner of Cornerstone Certified Vineyard who was managing the crew.

The pick at the vineyard was about a week earlier than last year and Pratt said he thought the 2022 harvest for the property would likely happen around Aug. 10. But tests on the grapes that came back to winemaker Leslie Mead Renaud showed the fruit was at a sugar level ready to be picked immediately, Pratt said.

“It hit the spot,” he said.

The pick came as a surprise as this summer’s weather has been relatively mild as opposed to some past years with increased heat, which would speed up the ripening of the fruit to be harvested. In 2016, the first pick was July 28 in the Carneros region of Napa County, which was one of the earliest harvests over the past decade.

“We attribute this early start and predicted light harvest to the lack of rain and the warm spring and early summer,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.

The earlier start date is not necessarily a bad situation, especially as the danger of wildfires in recent years has made the harvest much more difficult. The direct threat of damage from fires in recent years has destroyed a few winery properties, most notably in the 2020 Glass Fire in Napa Valley.

But the bigger threat has been that of smoke taint, which at a certain level can turn the smell of a wine into that of an ashtray or a wet newspaper. Most growers have crop insurance to guard against such catastrophic losses.

The July start date also can get more grapes into a facility before weather patterns change, such as a heat spike putting temperatures into triple digits or October rains that, if they linger, can devalue the crop.

“The best thing is we can pick because we are ready and not because we have to because the weather is bad,” Mead Renaud said

This year’s crop is expected to be lighter than average as the result of a spring frost and rains that occurred during bloom. The 2021 crop was valued at $1.4 billion for the counties of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Marin.

The harvest last year resulted in a 15% decrease from the 10-year average of 477,327 tons for the area that is considered the country’s best growing spot and offers the most prized wines.

“The crop is a lot lighter than we expected,” Mead Renaud said. “We were expecting the first block we were going to get four tons out of it. We just got over two.”

The quality looks really good, Mead Renaud said, and the fruit has so much concentration that should result in a flavorful wine. It will take about four years before wine from this harvest will be available to consumers, she added.

“It’s a four-year commitment and multiple hands touch every single bottle,” Mead Renaud said.

In fact, the winery on Friday was taking the final step for its 2018 sparkling vintage by removing the sediment that was residing in the neck of the bottle ― a process called disgorgement. Those bottles will be available for purchase in October and will be Martin Ray’s first sparkling vintage.

The grape picks in the region will continue into August for grapes used to produce sparkling wines. Depending on the whims of Mother Nature, the harvest around Labor Day will move into Burgundian varietals for still wine like pinot noir and chardonnay, and that will be followed in October by cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The work should wrap up for the most part around Halloween.

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