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North Coast 2020 grape harvest kicks off amid coronavirus concerns

On a temperate summer night, about 30 men on Wednesday picked pinot noir grapes from Schellville’s Sasaki Vineyards, ushering in the 2020 Sonoma County wine grape harvest amid the coronavirus pandemic that has fundamentally changed the North Coast wine industry.

The pick yielded about 20 tons of grapes from the vineyard of Janet and Tito Sasaki. It was similar to the previous 30 annual harvests for the couple, with the fruit getting trucked to nearby Gloria Ferrer winery to be made into sparkling wine.

“Beautiful bunches. ... I think they look the best ever,” Janet Sasaki said, right before her crew began plucking grapes from the vines just after 9 p.m. “The season was beautiful this summer, perfect for slow ripening.”

That’s where any similarities to previous harvests of the region’s biggest cash crop end. Concerns over spreading COVID-19 among the farmworkers was apparent with a portable sink set up for handwashing in the vineyard, signaling the stark difference from past harvests.

What’s more, there was not a hearty celebration at the Gloria Ferrer winery when the plump grapes arrived — 10 days earlier than last year — since only essential workers were allowed at the production area. And the usual photographers were not there to chronicle the arrival of the initial yearly grapes at the crush pad, forcing staff members there to shoot any images to document the key event, said Ferrer winery spokeswoman Suzie Kukaj-Curovic.

Notwithstanding the pandemic, this year’s harvest started earlier than average with the first known regional pick occurring at Dutcher Crossing Winery in the Dry Creek Valley at 2 a.m. Tuesday. Picks also have occurred in the Napa Valley at Mumm Napa and Schramsberg Vineyards.

Winemakers are predicting the 2020 crop will be lighter than the North Coast average, which over the past decade has produced almost 488,000 tons of wine grapes annually in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. Last year, the North Coast grape harvest brought in $1.7 billion, a large financial boost to the area economy.

The county and greater North Coast harvest this year coincides with flattening wine sales, as well an excess supply in the bulk wine market after large grape crops in recent years.

“It appears to be heading to a lighter crop versus a larger crop and things appear to be earlier this year,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner at Ciatti Co., a wine and grape brokerage in Novato. “I think both of those are welcome.”

The harvest should continue through the first week of November, when grapes for late red varieties such as cabernet sauvignon will be picked.

With risk of virus transmission among the pickers, wineries and vineyard management companies have put in place enhanced public health protocols in the vineyards and at wine properties. Worries still remain about the potential for workers to contract the highly contagious virus while living in dormitory-style housing provided on site by vineyard managers or when certain crews are transported in groups to vineyards.

In Sonoma County, there has been one unidentified farmworker dormitory where a worker was infected with COVID-19, forcing others living there to be moved to an alternate site. The same situation occurred in two of the three farmworker housing centers operated by the County of Napa. One of them shelters California farmworkers from outside the region.

Last month, Foley Johnson winery in Napa Valley, part of the portfolio of Foley Family Wines of Santa Rosa, temporarily closed after a single employee tested positive for the coronavirus. It’s perhaps the only area winery shuttered by the pandemic disease.

In addition to the potentially deadly virus and industry financial pressures, vinters in small locales like Mendocino County are contending with labor challenges.

“It’s always hard to find employees to pick grapes,” said Randy Schock, the winemaker at Handley Cellars in Philo in Mendocino County where the labor pool is not as vast as in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Schock noted one unnamed vineyard management company in Mendocino County had four employees who tested positive COVID-19, and he worried about potential problems when he calls for a pick later during this harvest season.

“We might only get half of the grapes picked this year, I don’t know,” Schock said.

Most grapes harvested are sold via multiyear contracts between growers and wineries. There is also fruit available to buy on the spot market though in 2019 there was a lack of buyers that resulted in a larger number of farmers forced to let tons of their grapes go unpicked on the vines.

Proctor said he expects there may more deals in the spot market this harvest with some winemakers having a greater need now for grapes and looking for deals.

“I think it may be driven by some of the out-of-the-area buyers looking for value versus some of the local wineries,” he said.

Even with all the challenges, the high quality of North Coast grapes remains with some varieties especially flavorful, winemakers said.

“There is definitely concentration (in the fruit),” said Fred Scherrer, owner and winemaker of Scherrer Winery in Sebastopol. “The vines didn’t have excessive water.”

Dutcher Crossing in the Dry Creek Valley pulled in four tons of chardonnay grapes early Tuesday and winemaker Nick Briggs said they were at the right sugar levels to be crushed.

Briggs doesn’t plan another pick until next week, giving him a little break before harvest will speed up.

“It’s all of us trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing,’’ he said, given the uncharted path caused by the coronavirus. ”I’m glad we had a little bit of time to adjust.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell

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