Wine Country prepares for another early harvest

Grapes around the North Coast are slowly turning color as a precursor to this year’s harvest, which is expected to arrive earlier than usual and deliver a smaller crop than last year.|

Grapes around the North Coast are slowly turning color as a precursor to this year’s harvest, which is expected to arrive earlier than usual and deliver a smaller crop than last year.

Vineyard managers in Sonoma and Napa counties report that they have seen signs of veraison - the French term for the onset of the visual signs of ripening in grapes. During the process, which begins the countdown to harvest, red grapes turn from green to red and a purplish hue while white grapes go from green to a golden yellow.

Local farmers said this year’s crop is maturing anywhere from 10 days to two weeks earlier than typical, similar to last year’s timeline, which resulted in the earliest harvest on the North Coast in a decade. Harvest is on track to start in mid-August, though fruit destined for sparkling wines will begin coming off the vines in late July or early August.

In fact, growers feared harvest would occur even sooner this year following a mild winter that triggered an unusually early bud break, when the vineyards awaken from their winter slumber. Most vines finished bud break in February, more than a month earlier than normal.

However, cool weather in May slowed down flowering and fruit set, when small flowers on the vines are fertilized and transformed into tiny grapes. Typically, this stage can last from 10 to 14 days. This year, it stretched out as long as four weeks in some cases, growers said.

As a result, growers expect the size of the Sonoma County grape crop will decline for the second straight year from the record-breaking 2013 harvest. Last year, growers hauled in 255,635 tons of grapes, valued at $593 million.

“We saw a long bloom because of a cool May,” said Ryan Decker, wine grower relations manager for Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg. “The main effect is you will see a reduced berry set, which is going to reduce yield a little bit, which is what we are seeing. … It’s just a little under the long-term average.”

Barry Hoffner, owner of Silverwood Ranch in the Pine Mountain/Cloverdale Peak area that borders Sonoma and Mendocino counties, thinks his crop will be 15 to 20 percent smaller than last year on the 40 acres of mountain vineyards he owns and leases.

“I don’t think it is going to affect the quality,” Hoffner said.

Growers are monitoring their grapes to spot signs of unevenness among fruit that is ripening slower than other clusters because of the long flowering period, likely forcing them to thin some of the crop this year.

“Our primary goal is uniformity,” said P.J. Alviso, director of estate viticulture at Duckhorn Wine Co., which has 600 acres on the North Coast from the Napa Valley to the Russian River Valley.

In some cases, Decker noted, it may be worth picking some less-ripe fruit if it is on a vine that contains other clusters that are more advanced, as the flavors could balance each other out.

Growers have been lucky this year with temperate weather so far, especially because there have not been many heat spikes this summer. As a result, growers have been able to reduce the amount of water they normally use to irrigate vineyards. The amount of water used by the wine industry has come under increasing scrutiny with California in its fourth year of drought.

This week’s rains also will help. Hoffner said they would allow him to hold off watering some of his vines until August.

At Rodney Strong, Decker said, workers are only using only 4-6 gallons of water per vine on a weekly basis as opposed to the average of 8-10 gallons. The company has about 1,150 acres.

The wine company has adopted new technology to help it reduce its water consumption, using a device that measures “evapotranspiration,” which is essentially the amount of moisture released by the vines into the air. That device, combined with soil moisture monitors, allows Decker and his crew to keep tabs on how much water to apply.

“It gives us (in) gallons of water how much each vine is using per week,” he said. “We have been tracking a little bit lower as far as water use because it has been a little bit cooler to this point.”

Alviso agreed, noting that Duckhorn has been using roughly 4-8 gallons per vine. “I have been amazed how much moisture the vines had early in the season,” he said. “We have irrigated very minimally.”

Both men said they anticipate the clusters of grapes will enjoy a longer “hang time” between veraison and harvest this year, giving the fruit greater depth and complexity.

“Any time we can extend that window from veraison to harvest, the wine quality is always going to be better,” Decker said.

Though the yield this year appears not to be as large as in 2014, which was part of three large consecutive harvests, it should be more near average, which will come as a relief for most vintners given the large supply of unsold wine on the bulk market.

The Ciatti Co., a San Rafael wine broker, notes in its June update that the California bulk wine market remains sluggish, adding that “large volumes remain of both red and white varietals from the 2012 and 2013 vintages.”

Steve Sangiacomo, a partner of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, said it was “a little relief” to have a smaller yield, given there had been some anxiety among growers at the prospects of having a fourth consecutive large crop. “We want to find that happy medium,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or 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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