Harvest draws to an early end in Sonoma County

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Anne Dempsey finally will be able to relax for Halloween this year.

As winemaker at Gundlach Bundschu Winery in the Sonoma Valley, Dempsey typically would still be almost two weeks away from the end of the North Coast grape harvest.

But this year, she received her last grapes Oct. 13, bins of merlot that marked the conclusion of the 2015 harvest for the family-operated winery.

“Usually, I remember going to the store in August, then later I turn around and there are pumpkins and I don’t what happened,” she said of the way time blurs in Wine Country during harvest, when everyone from field workers in the vineyard to cellar rats in the winery put in long, exhausting hours to pick and process the region’s grape crop.

Most of the grape harvest wrapped up last week in Sonoma County, though a few wineries still are picking, said Sean Carroll, spokesman for Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group that represents more than 1,800 grape growers. Historically, harvest ends on the North Coast around Nov. 1.

Adam Lee, co-founder of Siduri Wines, said that he actually took a trip with several other fathers from his children’s school to attend a Giants game in late September — an unheard-of excursion for most winemakers at that time of year. He finished harvest Oct. 2 when the last of his pinot noir crop came into his Santa Rosa facility, the earliest ever for Siduri outside its first year of operation, when production was limited.

“I got a little more time at home,” said Lee, who sold the winery to Jackson Family Wines in January but still serves as its winemaker. “There is a lot of school stuff that goes on the beginning of the year. … I miss seeing my kids.”

At Jordan Vineyards and Winery, harvest ended Sept. 28, the earliest since 1997, according to Lisa Mattson, spokeswoman for the Alexander Valley winery.

The North Coast grape crop will be much smaller than normal this year, with estimates ranging from 15 percent to 25 percent less. Some varieties had much smaller yields, such as pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, especially the latter grown on hillsides.

“Pinot has always been the one variety that has been a finicky son of a gun,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner at Ciatti Co., a San Rafael wine and grape broker.

Pinot noir yields dropped to 2 to 3.5 tons per acre this year, down from 4.5 to 5 tons per acre last year, Proctor noted. Lee said his pinot noir yields were down about 40 percent this year.

The smaller crop is a result of a growing season that began earlier than usual this year, when high temperatures at the beginning of the year triggered bud break weeks earlier than normal.

However, cooler weather in the spring prolonged fruit-set, when small flowers on the vines are transformed into tiny grapes. That set the stage for a smaller crop and an early harvest, along with uneven ripening in some vineyards.

Weather during the summer was ideal for growers with the exception of two heat spikes — the last one occurring right after Labor Day — that brought the fruit to optimal ripeness and forced winemakers to schedule their picks.

“It was definitely a challenging year in the vineyard,” Dempsey said. “Mother Nature hands you what you get.”

At Gundlach Bundschu, vineyard crews reduced the big canopies growing on the vines because they could result in unbalanced wines, with a hint of green bell peppers in the taste. That meant planting more cover crops, leafing the vines and strategic watering to cause stress on the vines that would bring out the fruit’s flavors, Dempsey said.

The vintage is dynamic, she said, with expressive aromatics that come to the forefront with each taste. Lee of Siduri agreed, saying the quality of the 2015 vintage is very good and “it may be an exceptional year in some places.”

The lower yield also will help bring the wine marketplace more into balance after three bumper crops on the North Coast, which produced a $1.45 billion grape crop last year and is the nation’s foremost premier wine region.

Wineries that had expected to buy surplus grapes on the open market this year to support their brands are out of luck if they didn’t purchase early, Proctor said. Instead, they are heading into the bulk wine market to buy wine from previous vintages. As a result, California bulk wine inventories have dropped to about 18 million gallons, down from a high capacity of about 33 million gallons before harvest, he said.

“People are kind of licking their wounds on counting what they got for the (2015) crush,” Proctor said.

The large previous crops also have kept retail prices in check, said Ben Pearson, wine buyer for Bottle Barn, a Santa Rosa wine, beer and spirits shop. At least a dozen award-winning wines from this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition are priced at less than $20 per bottle, with Pearson noting a best-of-class winner 2014 chardonnay from Kenwood Vineyards carries a suggested retail price of $14.

“There is just a bounty of value,” Pearson said. “I owe it to the big vintages.”

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

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