North Coast wine grape harvest wraps up uneventful season
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.
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.
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.