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North Coast wine grape harvest wraps up uneventful season

North Coast wine harvest at a glance

The local wine grape harvest this year started in early August and is scheduled to wrap by the time of a storm system entering the area on Wednesday.

Employment: There are an estimated 6,000 full-time workers in the local vineyards. That is supplemented by about 800 part-time workers who help with harvest. In addition, there are an estimated 900 foreign workers who are in the region through a special federal program for up to 10 months.

Size: There were 57,539 bearing acres of wine grape vineyards in 2019.

Value: The value of the 2020 crop was $357 million, which was a 45% drop from 2019 because of the impact of smoke taint from wildfires. The high point for the crop was the almost $778 million value of 2018.

As the sunrise peaked Wednesday into the Battle Family Vineyards in a remote section of the Alexander Valley, Ray Fechter could see the light that also signaled the end of the season for the 2021 wine grape harvest.

“I love this. We’re at the tail end,” said Fechter, a grower relations viticulture representative for Delicato Family Wines.

The nearby crews were methodically picking cabernet sauvignon grapes that would go into its luxury Archimedes label, which Delicato acquired this year as part of its purchase of Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The deal was part of the industry’s significant mergers-and-acquisition activity this year.

“We’re getting close,” Fechter said as he oversaw the late Bordeaux varietals that are typically the last to get picked in the North Coast under more crisp weather that serves as a stark contrast to the summer heat when harvest began in early August for sparkling wines. “It’s just a few more trickling truckloads.”

Like Fechter, those in the local wine sector also are letting out a sigh of relief, especially as this year’s harvest was relatively uneventful even though the billion-dollar crop appears to be smaller than the recent historical average.

The season also progressed with a quick pace to the picks and will finish up on the early side as the wine grape harvest can go well into the first week of November. “Rather than just trying to survive the season, you’re actually getting back into passion of it,” Fechter said of this year’s work.

The less newsworthy harvest was a welcome solace as the engine of the region’s economy has spent the past four years grappling with wildfires and the complications they can create.

The blazes not only carry the danger of physical damage to wineries and field equipment, their smoke also can taint the fruit, making it unusable. The 2020 harvest tonnage for Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties was down one-third from 2019 as a result of smoke taint from the Lightning Complex and Glass fires.

A vineyard worker runs with a lug full of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Road at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
A vineyard worker runs with a lug full of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Road at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

From 2017, the local wine industry has had about $370 million in insured losses, according to the Department of Insurance.

After all they have been through, vintners said they will take a relatively pedestrian harvest like this year, which also featured no weather extremes, such as biting frosts in the spring nor prolonged 100-degree heat spikes like that of 2017.

“Absolutely in 2021 we have been so blessed by the weather, the lack of frost, the lack of wildfires,” said Alison Crowe, director of winemaking of Plata Wine Partners, the winemaking arm of Silverado, which farms thousands of acres in the North and Central coasts.

Even with no major curve balls from Mother Nature this year, there were still challenges.

Vineyard workers empty lugs of cabernet sauvignon grapes into a tractor bin on the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Road  at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Vineyard workers empty lugs of cabernet sauvignon grapes into a tractor bin on the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Road at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

The growing season began with a lack of winter rain that signified a continuing drought throughout the region. Some farmers were forced to let some vines go fallow, especially if they did not have any good irrigation options for them. Throughout the region, some clusters were impacted by colder weather and wind during the spring when flowers come into bloom and the fruit sets on the vine, resulting in less tonnage.

“We are thinking that it’s going to be below average (tonnage) for most varieties, except that chardonnay might come in close to average,” said Christian Klier, a grape broker at Turrentine Brokerage in Novato.

Growers secure most of their grapes under contract with wineries in the winter, and the remaining fruit is left to be bought on the spot market during the summer and into the harvest. This year the spot market was more of buyer’s market given the lower yield, Klier said, especially for some varietals like sauvignon blanc.

This year’s crop followed one in 2020 that only produced almost 342,000 tons — which was a 20-year low for the four counties — and built up more demand in the marketplace for wineries.

“It has been near perfect for growing grapes this year, and a second year of a lighter crop is bringing more balance to the market which is encouraging,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the trade group that represents local growers.

North Coast wine harvest at a glance

The local wine grape harvest this year started in early August and is scheduled to wrap by the time of a storm system entering the area on Wednesday.

Employment: There are an estimated 6,000 full-time workers in the local vineyards. That is supplemented by about 800 part-time workers who help with harvest. In addition, there are an estimated 900 foreign workers who are in the region through a special federal program for up to 10 months.

Size: There were 57,539 bearing acres of wine grape vineyards in 2019.

Value: The value of the 2020 crop was $357 million, which was a 45% drop from 2019 because of the impact of smoke taint from wildfires. The high point for the crop was the almost $778 million value of 2018.

The average price per ton last year in the North Coast was $2,771, which was buoyed by Napa County at $4,592 per ton and fueled by its highly coveted cabernet sauvignon. That level for the 2020 represented the first drop in price per ton averages since the 2010 harvest.

“There hasn't seemed to have been very much extra fruit out there available,” Klier said. “We saw the market rebound (this year) and pricing getting back to a more fair market price for the growers. We believe that fair market pricing will continue into 2022.”

Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol has its last picks scheduled for the weekend, as the region braces for a possible storm system that may bring significant amounts of rain midweek, said co-owner Mike Martini.

“The yields were all over the map. There were some vineyards that came in unexpectedly light, others came in normal,” he said.

Like others, Martini noted that “we dodged a bullet with wildfires; that’s a critical piece.”

The industry also again faced challenges with finding labor to work in the vineyards. Beyond those who work full-time, the harvest also brings in migrant workers lured by employment that can be lucrative.

A vineyard worker picks cabernet sauvignon grapes on the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Rd. at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
A vineyard worker picks cabernet sauvignon grapes on the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Rd. at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

They can receive more than $30 per hour during harvest for some picks. Those workers come into the region from as far as Stockton and Yuba City, said Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, who has studied the local sector.

There are an estimated 6,000 full-time vineyard workers in Sonoma County, which has been supplemented by an estimated 800 part-time workers during harvest, Kruse said. The Sonoma County Winegrowers conducted a survey this summer that found more than 80% of the vineyard workers in the county are employed full-time and more than half have worked at the same farm for more than 10 years.

But there still remains a tight labor market, and some farmers have increasingly relied on Mexican workers under the federal H-2A program, which allows agriculture employers to hire foreign guest workers for jobs lasting up to 10 months. Those farms also must provide housing for the foreign workers.

For example, Noble Vineyard Management in Ukiah was able to increase its H-2A workforce from 15 workers in 2020 to 60 this year, said Tyler Rodrigue, CEO for the company that oversees 1,500 acres of vineyards in Mendocino, Sonoma and Lake counties.

“I think for those who are looking to mitigate future challenges as they become more — and labor being one of them — I think they're finding that H-2A can be a really positive solution,” Rodrigue said.

Sonoma County grape growers have increased its reliance on the H-2A program from about 550 such workers five years ago to an estimated 900 workers this year across the county, Kruse said.

But she and others in the business see the H-2A program as a bridge as local farmers rely more on machine picks in future years as the technology improves for the mechanical harvesters and they become more accepted by the area’s premium wineries.

About 90% of the wine grapes in California are picked by machines, Martin said. Kruse estimated that the level of machine picks is about 30% for Sonoma County but that number is growing.

“The harvesters are such high quality, some wineries are actually asking for a mechanized harvest,” she said.

Overall, the quality of the 2021 wine grape crop should be quite good, vintners said.

A vineyard worker empties a lug of cabernet sauvignon grapes into a tractor bin on the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Road  at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
A vineyard worker empties a lug of cabernet sauvignon grapes into a tractor bin on the hillside Battle Family Vineyards off Chalk Hill Road at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The grapes will go into Archimedes, a luxury label for the Francis Ford Coppola winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

“Winemakers have been pleased with what they’ve been tasting in the fermenters thus far,” said Corey Beck, chief winemaker for Delicato.

Crowe agreed, noting she would be doing her last local picks on Tuesday before the storm system enters the area: “Talking with some of the winemakers I know, everyone is just thrilled with the quality. This is certainly my favorite year within the last five years.”

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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