Early grape harvest gets going in Sonoma County

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The early wine grape harvest continues this year along the North Coast as Sonoma County vintners have started picking fruit to be used for sparkling wine.

The first growers in the county started picking July 29, when nearly 18 tons of pinot noir grapes were harvested from Vineyard Eleven in the Russian River Valley. The harvest is one of the earliest on record for the county, occurring a day earlier than the 2014 harvest, according to the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the local trade group for growers.

Gloria Ferrer Vineyards in Sonoma kicked off its harvest early Friday morning for pinot noir grapes on its estate vineyards, the earliest harvest there in more than a decade, according to winemaker Steven Urberg.

That trend continued on Monday morning as Amista Winery in Dry Creek Valley picked its first grapes of the season: chardonnay grapes from a 3-acre vineyard on its estate property, said winemaker Ashley Herzberg.

Typically, the first pick of the year for her winery would come in the second or third week of August, Herzberg said, but she decided to call it for Monday as high sugar levels in the fruit had leveled off in part because of foggier weather. The grapes had also reached the right flavor profile for use in a blanc de blanc wine, Herzberg said.

Growers in Napa County kicked off the North Bay harvest on July 22, when crews for Mumm Napa marked its earliest harvest for its sparkling wine production. Grapes used for sparkling wine typically have a lower sugar level than for still wine, which results in the fruit being picked earlier.

“I don’t know if we are reaching a new normal,” Herzberg said of the early harvest.

The harvest this year is expected be less bountiful than in 2014 and the record-breaking 2013 crop. Last year, nearly 532,000 tons of grapes were harvested in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

At Amista, Herzberg said Monday’s haul pulled in about 7.5 tons. “Everything is looking a little bit lighter this year,” she said.

Urberg estimated that the crop at Gloria Ferrer would be 20 to 40 percent lighter than a typical year.

A lighter crop is not necessarily bad news coming off three large harvests that have resulted in large inventory and a buyer’s market for grapes and wine in bulk for some varietals, including chardonnay from Sonoma County, according to Turrentine Brokerage.

The chardonnay varietal is the most popular grape harvested in Sonoma County at 34 percent, followed by pinot noir at 19 percent and cabernet sauvignon at 18 percent.

According to a June forecast from Turrentine Brokerage, the demand for Sonoma County chardonnay should continue, especially in strong subappellations, “even in the midst of greater competition from other high-end appellations in California and also from premium areas around the world.”

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