Heat spike kicks North Coast grape harvest into high gear

The recent heat spike has kicked the North Coast grape harvest into overdrive as growers near the finish line of the season with a crop that is again earlier than usual and yields expected to be near the historical average.

“Over the last week, the heat has definitely pushed the ripening and really condensed our harvest timeline,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the trade group that represents most local grape growers.

About 80 percent of the grapes in the county have been picked, Kruse estimated on Wednesday. Fruit typically picked later in the season, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the Alexander Valley, could be done by the end of next week.

Harvest should be completed in the county by mid-October, two weeks earlier than usual for a season that traditionally wraps up around Halloween, she said. From start to finish, most local growers took an average of six weeks to bring in their crop, she said.

“For most folks, this was a very quick harvest,” Kruse said.

The weather so far has been beneficial for the North Coast’s grape crop, which was valued at $1.1 billion last year in the premium wine region of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. The vineyards avoided frost during the growing season and spring rainfall provided sufficient water into the summer, where temperatures have been within the historical range.

“It’s been a nice, relatively even season without extremes,” said David Ramey, owner and winemaker of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg.

The past two weekends with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees - which spiked the sugar levels in the fruit - has forced winemakers to speed up their pick dates and winery staff to scramble for additional tank space.

“We are picking cabernet at higher (sugars) than we want to and the wineries want to,” said Bret Munselle, a fifth-generation grower with Munselle Vineyards, which owns 300 acres in the Alexander Valley and farms another 300 acres for clients.

The heat was not prolonged, so the crop avoided sun damage. “There’s not a lot of sunburn or raisined (grapes),” Ramey said.

Like others, Munselle is doing more machine harvests, especially on the valley floor where tractors can operate more easily.

Early Wednesday, Munselle had a crew for a machine pick at Stone Ranch in the Alexander Valley for cabernet sauvignon.

The machine harvesters with their bright lights can be seen around the North Coast during harvest time, an eerie view akin to a UFO landing on a movie set. They head down each vineyard row vigorously shaking the vines to remove the berries from the clusters. The crews typically start around midnight when the nighttime fruit is chilled, which winemakers prefer for crushing.

Machine picks are becoming more common in the North Coast, especially because of a labor shortage in the local industry and new laws that will bump the minimum wage to ?$15 an hour by 2022 and implement new overtime rules for agriculture.

Still, work crews are needed for areas such as hillsides, Munselle said, and the heat has forced vineyard managers to end shifts earlier than usual to protect workers.

He recently had a pick with a crew at Pine Mountain near the Mendocino County border. The temperature that day was 75 degrees at 7 a.m. “We have been able to do less,” he said. “Instead of stopping at lunch, we stop at 10 a.m. because of the heat.”

While the high temperatures have subsided, growers now are worrying about a chance of showers Sunday afternoon, especially as rain during harvest can trigger spoilage or mildew.

“You’re seeing a big push to get things in with the possibility of rain on Sunday, especially with the white grapes,” Kruse said.

This year’s North Coast harvest will be larger than last year’s 402,489 tons, according to analysts. Glenn Proctor, a partner at Ciatti Co., a wine brokerage firm located in San Rafael, is predicting a North Coast crop of around 500,000 tons. That would put it ahead of the 10-year average of 463,000 tons, but below the record crops of 2012, 2013 and 2014.

“Things look relatively up,” Proctor said. “There is still good activity for in-demand varieties even with the crop bigger than initially expected.”

Those popular varieties, Proctor said, include cabernet sauvignon from Napa and Sonoma counties and chardonnay and pinot noir from the Russian River Valley.

“All (of those) still have solid demand and growers have not had issues continuing to sell these varieties even now on the market at prices that are at, or near, what they could sell them for earlier in the year,” he added.

The quality of the fruit appears to be good this year, with some crediting milder temperatures at the end of August that allowed the grapes more time to ripen and develop a greater flavor.

“It’s been a great season so far - the grapes are in great condition and are showcasing spectacular flavors,” Kendall-Jackson winemaster Randy Ullom said in an email.

Munselle agreed and said the vines are in better condition this year and that the grapes have a good texture with no softness.

“The quality of the grape looks great,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or

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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