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Verasion spreads across North Coast, changing colors in vineyards signals grape harvest is approaching

As he walked through his Fountaingrove estate, Paradise Ridge Winery owner Rene Byck was just happy to focus on the changing colors in the vineyard rows as he prepared for the start of the 2020 wine grape harvest later this month.

The past few years have been challenging for the family-owned winery. It burned down during the 2017 wildfires. Then, like others, it struggled through power shutoffs and wildfire evacuations last year during prime tourist season. While it was able to reopen its tasting room in December, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in March forced Paradise Ridge to limit its tasting hours and put its wedding events business on hold.

But the looming start of the winery’s 29th grape harvest has Byck optimistic, especially as he looked over the syrah grapes in various stages of a purple hue that are growing more ripe by the day. All Byck wants is a relatively normal season.

“Because of the pandemic, we don’t want a huge yield,” Byck said. “We want a normal harvest. ... Everyone’s gone through so much.”

Many other vintners have similar wishes across the North Coast, where clusters of grapes used to make red wine are changing color from green to purple, an annual ritual of summer known by the French term “veraison.” The deep hues spreading throughout the vineyards are a telltale sign that harvest is around the corner..

This year’s harvest is likely to start in mid August, beginning with grapes used in sparkling wines. Last year’s harvest kicked off on Aug. 13, two days ahead of the 2018 opening date.

The size of the 2020 crop is expected to be around or slightly below the average, which over the past decade has produced almost 488,000 tons of wine grapes annually in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. Last year, the North Coast grape harvest brought in $1.7 billion, a major economic force in the region.

That situation would be a welcome relief for many in the wine industry, which is swimming in a glut of wine on the bulk market after previous bumper crops. At the same time, wine sales have flattened, a trend that has been exacerbated because the pandemic forced a reduction in shipments to restaurants, hotels, airlines and other businesses that serve wine on their premises. Analysts predict some smaller wineries may not survive the recession.

“It’s the pandemic that has put the big question mark over everything,” said Brian Clements, vice president and partner at Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato bulk wine and grape dealer.

The North Coast grape crop is definitely in a buyer’s market for fruit that is not already under contract, Clements said. While grape prices have fallen, buyers still face considerable risk because the marketplace is so crowded and there are no guarantees they will be able to sell their wines at a profit, he said.

“There’s wineries that are selling bulk wine and they aren’t going to get their money out of it. There are wineries selling grapes and they aren’t going to get their money out of it. And there are growers selling grapes that are not going to get their money out of it and make a profit,” Clements said of the current marketplace.

The quality does appear to be good, winemakers said. The weather for the growing season has been favorable. Bud break started in February and the only minor issue was some late May freeze that affected a few low-lying vineyards. Temperatures during the summer have been consistent with only a few days hotter than 100 degrees or above.

“The weather has been cooperative,” said Alison Crowe, director of winemaking and partner at Plata Wine Partners, who typically does her first pick in the Carneros region by San Pablo Bay. “I am seeing a nice skin-to-juice ratio and berry sizing. I think it’s going to be a high-quality year.”

David Ramey, founder of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, also agreed. “It’s not a warm early season and there’s really no issues, so everything looks on pace,” Ramey said.

Grapes for still wine will likely start to be picked at the end of the month, with chardonnay and pinot noir being first. Crush typically lasts until near the first of November, when late-red varieties such as cabernet sauvignon are harvested, depending if Mother Nature also cooperates and there is no scrambling as a result of natural disasters, as in past years.

“With today’s crop of winemakers, if nothing else, we have learned to be very resilient,” Crowe said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell

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