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North Coast grape harvest wraps up before rains come

A grape harvest that again started earlier than usual this year has essentially wrapped up in the North Coast, about two weeks ahead of the typical end of the season and before weekend rains that could have presented major problems for winemakers.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, where workers on Wednesday received their last bunch of grapes, cabernet sauvignon from the Alexander Valley. The pick came right before storms that are expected to come in tonight and dump several inches of rain through Sunday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

“Today is our day,” said Ryan Decker, grower relations manager at Rodney Strong. He added that anything more than half an inch of rain from a storm could pose problems for wineries. “The imminent weather kind of forced our hand a little bit.”

The season will be noted for mostly ideal weather for the more than $1.1 billion cash crop: adequate rainfall during the winter, a frost-free spring, and a few short heat spikes during the summer that provided a quick and steady pace of picking since kickoff on July 28 in American Canyon.

There were a few reports of powdery mildew, a fungal disease that can ruin the fruit.

“This year has just been beautiful,” said Michael Silacci, winemaker at Opus One in Oakville. “The pace of harvest was amazing.”

The only major downside was again the growing lack of available labor in the local industry as a result of immigration restrictions and competition from the construction industry. That led to more machine picks during the year.

Rodney Strong relied on more machine picks from vineyard management companies this year given the worker shortage, Decker said, though it prefers hand-picked grapes. Its hillside grapes and fruit for high-end wine are still picked by hand, he noted.

But the winery’s hand was forced this year in some cases when its winemaking team wanted to schedule a pick.

“We either pick in 21/2 (by hand) or in three days with a machine,” he said.

This year’s yield will be larger than last year’s crop for Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties - 402,489 tons. Last year’s crop followed three years of massive crops, growers say.

The Ciatti Co., a grape broker, has predicted a crop of around 500,000 tons, which would be above the 10-year average of 463,000 tons. The company predicted more than 150,000 tons for Napa and more than 210,000 tons for Sonoma.

The vast majority of North Coast grapes are under contract for wineries before the season begins. But those who were looking for additional grapes, especially in pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, found a very tight market, said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage.

“Whatever was delivered to the wineries wasn’t enough,” Clements said. “The market demanded and wanted more than Mother Nature could provide.”

The vintage should benefit from the mostly temperate weather during the summer, which allowed the winemakers to decide when they wanted to pick rather than being forced by the temperature or other weather conditions.

“I think the cooler vintage overall really helped preserved a sense of freshness in the wine,” said Caleb Mosley, senior viticulturist of Michael Wold Vineyard Services in Napa. He said the fruit in Napa Valley had beautifully resolved tannins with deep color.

“A lot of winemakers were able to pick when they felt was optimal for them as opposed to being pushed into a pick decision, which is what happens over the last few years,” he said.

“There weren’t many fire drills,” Decker added. “The sugars would jump (during heat spikes) and then ease back.”

He said the quality of the sauvignon blanc “was looking really nice” and there was a larger than expected crop for merlot grapes.

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

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