Veraison arrives in Sonoma, Napa vineyards, signaling harvest is near

Grape growers across the North Coast are reporting their fruit has begun to change colors, a seasonal rite that signals the region’s $1.5 billion grape crop is quickly ripening and harvest is approaching.

Sonoma County farmers have said their vineyards are undergoing veraison, the French term (pronounced ver-ray-shon) that describes the visual onset of ripening as grapes used to make red wines transform from green to crimson.

It typically means that harvest should start in about six weeks, though picking will begin earlier for fruit used in sparkling wine that comes into the winery with lower sugar levels. Warmer sites, such as the Carneros region in the south near San Pablo Bay, are experiencing the most color change right now.

Growers said the crop, which has declined in size in three of the last four years, is expected to be slightly larger than normal this year.

“We have a good-looking crop,” said David Cook of Cook Vineyard Management in Sonoma, which oversees vineyards in Carneros, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley. He noted that up to 20 percent of his pinot noir crop has already turned red. “It looks to be a great vintage so far.”

Most notably, vineyard managers said this year’s grape crop is 10 to 14 days behind schedule from last year, the result of cooler weather in the spring when flowers on the vine were turning into fruit. If the ripening pace remains constant, most crews will be picking through much of October.

In 2017, harvest started on July 28 for a crop that was valued at $1.5 billion for Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

“Mother Nature has been nice so far,” said Chad Clark, manager of North Coast operations for the Allied Grape Growers, which represents about 100 growers and wineries in the region.

Growers said the 2018 season has mostly been uneventful. A mild winter, spring rains and summer heat within historical averages has yielded a crop that is in balance. For example, crews at Renteria Vineyard Management in Napa Valley have had to remove fewer leaves - a task that ensures grapes get enough air flow while remaining protected from the midday sun - because vineyard canopies have grown more evenly this summer than in past years, said Brittany Pederson, director of viticulture at the company.

“There’s not a lot of extra passes we’ve made” in the vineyard, Pederson said.

This year’s growing season marks a major swing from 2017, when a Labor Day heat spike made winemakers pick their chardonnay and pinot noir early or risk them withering on the vines. It was followed by October wildfires that forced some growers to leave cabernet sauvignon and other late varietals to rot as a result of evacuations and smoke damage.

Vineyards were largely unscathed from wildfire damage, although growers did have to replace sheds and equipment that burned in the blazes. Cook said one water well near a vineyard he manages had collapsed as a result of the fires, and he is in the process of repairing it.

“Folks in our community have a heightened awareness and are paying attention. They are a lot more cognizant of the potential (wildfire) damages,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the main trade group that represents the county’s grape growers.

North Coast vineyards yielded 467,157 tons of grapes last year, slightly above the 10-year average of 462,149 tons. Analysts said the expected yield for 2018 should be above normal, but will vary among different regions and varietals as vineyard managers continue to conduct their cluster counts.

“From what I hear, it’s going to be an average-plus (crop),” said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Wine Brokerage in Novato.

The bullishness on the yield is based on the local chardonnay crop, which is expected to be larger than normal, Clements said.

The varietal is the largest crop in Sonoma County with about 61,000 tons picked last year at a value of more than $140 million.

The pinot noir crop - which is Sonoma County’s most expensive varietal, averaging more than $3,900 per ton - appears poised for slightly smaller yields near the Sonoma Coast, though other vineyards are reporting a more typical year, Clark said. “Pinot is all over the board,” he said.

The cabernet sauvignon crop appears to be more spotty, especially at higher elevations in areas such as the Alexander Valley, said Ryan Decker, director of estate vineyards for Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg. He attributed the expected lower yield for late-harvested red varietals to a phenomena known as “shatter,” where the grape cluster has not fully matured.

“It’s nothing drastic,” Decker said. “I would say it’s down 10 to 15 percent.”

Growers have so far avoided other problems this summer that have presented obstacles in the past, especially as drier weather has kept dreaded mildew away.

The lack of available workers continues to pose a threat, which growers are addressing it by importing more foreign-based workers through a special federal visa program or relying more on machines that can pick the grapes. Overall, a quiet year should be good for business, Clark said.

“We welcome it with open arms,” he said. “We had a rough go of it last year.”

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

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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