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North Coast grape harvest nears with smaller crop amid challenges of drought, wildfires

As he surveys the area surrounding his vineyard in the Ukiah Valley, Tyler Rodrigue tries to remain upbeat about the North Coast wine industry’s two big worries: drought and another looming fire season.

“There’s a lot of things out of our control … welcome to farming,” said Rodrigue, CEO of Noble Vineyard Management. “You kind of just layer on another one with the drought.”

The company oversees 1,500 acres of vineyards in Mendocino, Sonoma and Lake counties. That includes its own holdings as well as those of large companies such as Jackson Family Wines and Concha y Toro, which owns Fetzer Vineyards in nearby Hopland. The only area that it doesn’t operate in the North Coast is Napa County.

Walking between organic vines in his 170-acre Haiku Vineyard, Rodrigue notes that it is shaping up to be a lighter crop this year. He is not suffering as badly from the drought as others because his farm has three irrigation ponds and two wells that can access water from the nearby Mayacamas Mountains. But even that is no assurance when it comes time to pick the fruit. Rodrigue noted his vines received “mixed messages” this winter with warm days in the 70s followed by near freezing temperatures at night, confusing them on whether to come out of their dormancy and start bud break.

Handling the chardonnay, Rodrigue remarks: “We just don’t have a lot of clusters here.”

That scenario is playing out over the four-county North Coast region as the wine grape yield is expected to be below the annual average of around 479,000 tons over the past 10 years, growers and analysts said. The first pick is expected to come in early August for fruit that will go into sparkling wines, for which the regional crop has averaged $1.3 billion in annual value over the past decade. The season typically can last into early November when the last red varietals such as cabernet sauvignon are harvested, though that schedule can quickly change with the whims of Mother Nature throwing a heat spike or a downpour of rain.

“We’re getting final crop estimates this week and last week and what they are seeing is that the crop might be a little bit down. The (wineries) are looking to backfill their allocations needed for the 2021 harvest and we expect them to do a little more purchasing,” said Christian Klier, a grape broker at Turrentine Brokerage in Novato.

The two grape varieties he has seen affected with potential smaller yields in the region are sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, Klier said.

The annual harvest is a key economic driver in the region’s economy, employing thousands of workers from those with worker visas from Mexico to college students looking for hands-on experience as an intern in a cellar or lab. While most of the work is carried out in the vineyard and crush pads, North Bay residents and the throngs of tourists the wine industry attracts will catch a glimpse of early morning activity as trucks stacked with bins carefully maneuver the valuable crop through local roadways to destination wineries.

So why the smaller crop? The drought will play a role as some growers will let certain vines go fallow to focus on other portions of vineyards that are likely to bear more tonnage of fruit. As witnessed in Rodrigue’s vineyards, the weather plays a major factor, especially through the winter and spring as the flowers come into bloom and the fruit sets on the vine. Events such as cold weather and wind can affect the size of the clusters.

“In some areas, we are seeing a little bit of impact from the drought, which really started last year. In some cases, you may have a little bit lower cluster counts. On the whole, the quality of the fruit looks excellent,” said Bob Knebel, president and chief executive officer of Rombauer Vineyards in St. Helena. The family-owned winery has vineyard holdings in the Napa Valley, the Carneros region that borders San Pablo Bay and the Sierra foothills.

The winery has a couple areas where its water wells are not deep enough and “that’s a little bit of a concern,” he said. But most of its vineyards are good shape, Knebel said, noting that the local sector had previously dealt with a five-year drought about five years ago.

“Everything did just fine throughout those years as well. So we are not overly concerned just yet, but looking forward to a wet winter ahead,” Knebel said,

Over at Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, the work crews were “hyper-aggressive” with irrigation early in the year, so its vineyards are in pretty good shape overall, said Jeff Bundschu, president of his family’s winery.

“As we are looking around at some other vineyards, we have seen some haven’t fared quite as well,” Bundschu said.

But there also is another concern. Gundlach Bundschu escaped without severe damage in 2017 as the Nuns fire encroached onto its property, but the threat of wildfires now lurks for all vintners throughout the region and informs harvest preparations, he said.

“Now with it (harvest) seems it’s down the list with a couple of external factors, fires being a huge one and now drought. It’s interesting times for sure,” Bundschu said.

The wildfires last year played a massive role in 2020’s small yield primarily because of fruit that was left on the vines because of smoke taint. The tonnage was down by a third from 2019. That resulted in a grape harvest where the value of the crop dropped by almost half from 2019’s $1.8 billion.

Most growers had crop insurance to guard against such catastrophic losses last year. The short crop from 2020 did help bring the overall grape market more into balance. Previously it had been a buyer’s market since the large 2018 crop that had almost 590,000 tons harvested throughout the four counties.

Most growers finalize their grapes under contract with wineries by the winter, leaving the rest to be snatched up on the spot market right before and during harvest. That total on the spot market is typically from 10% to 15% but it was higher than 30% at the beginning of the year, said Glenn Proctor, a partner with Ciatti Co., a Novato grape and wine brokerage.

Wineries, however, have entered the market more in recent weeks, though not at prices that growers could fetch in past years, he said.

“There is still available fruit. There’s a kind of consistent buying activity. Prices are definitely below three of four years ago,” Proctor said.

Another smaller crop for 2021 may further balance the local grape market, though much of that is contingent on Americans buying more premium wine in coming years, he said.

“We believe that it’s probably a good thing we don’t have a big crop,” Proctor said of this year’s harvest. “I don’t think we have the demand to back it up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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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