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The 2016 grape harvest kicked off Thursday morning in American Canyon, a year after a very light crop all across the North Coast.

Growers are ramping up again this year for an earlier harvest with a yield that is expected to be closer to the historical average for the more than $1 billion crop, which drives a large portion of the local economy.

The season began when work crews picked a block of pinot meunier at the Green Island Vineyard along the edge of the Napa River.

The crew of about 30 workers started going down vineyard rows around 5:45 a.m. as they picked through the eight-acre block. They will be back again on Friday to pick pinot noir at the site.

“The grapes are really happy. They are growing really well because it hasn’t got too hot. The acids are holding nicely. It should be a great quality year,” said Julie Nord, the vineyard manager overseeing the pick. Nord noted the temperature has not reached above 93 degrees this summer at the vineyard.

The fruit was later crushed at Mumm Napa facilities in Napa. It will go into sparkling wine for the winery, which sells its bottles in a $20 to $75 price range. The sparkler category has been very strong in recent years, with impressive growth as consumers increasingly use it as an everyday wine rather than just for special occasions.

Mumm winemaker Ludovic Dervin noted the pinot meunier varietal is not generally well known among wine consumers compared to the pinot noir and chardonnay that goes into sparkling wine. It’s a grape that has a later bud break and is less prone to spring frost, but ripens faster than pinot noir.

“It’s actually a natural mutation of pinot noir,” Dervin said. “It’s one of the main grapes used to make Champagne in France. One-third of the vineyards in Champagne are planted to pinot meunier.”

Grapes for sparkling wine are picked first because a lower sugar level is required for the two fermentation processes that create the bubbles.

This year’s first pick comes after a much smaller North Coast crop in 2015 – 402,489 tons – that followed three massive crops. One estimate put the drop in yield from Napa and Sonoma counties from 2014 to 2015 as the equivalent of about 9 million cases of wine.

Growers said this year’s crop yield appears to be closer to the historical average and greater than last year’s level, though it depends on the variety. Dervin said he thinks the pinot noir and chardonnay crops in Napa Valley will still be less than the historical average.

“So far, it looks pretty good out there,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group that represents 1,800 growers around the region. Kruse said she has estimated a yield of at least 5 percent more than last year, based on discussions with local growers.

It also appears the harvest season in general will continue the recent trend of starting earlier than usual.

“We still are going to be a week or two earlier than we usually are,” said John Bucher, who has 14 blocks of grapes in his vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

This year’s first pick, however, did not set a record. In 2015, Mumm started to pick on July 22.

Grapes along the North Coast have started this month to turn color and ripen, a process commonly referred to by the French term “veraison.” Fruit for red wine turns from green to red and purple, while grapes for white wine go from green to a golden yellow.

Kruse estimated the overall Sonoma County crop is at a little more than 50 percent of veraison. A rule of thumb for winemakers is that grapes are ready to be picked about 30 to 40 days after they reach 100 percent veraison.

This year’s harvest has so far been notable for two qualities, Kruse said -- good rainfall over the winter and spring months that has provided sufficient water for the grapes to mature without much irrigation, and a labor shortage that has vineyard management companies scrambling to ensure that they can cover all their jobs.

“The labor market is definitely getting tighter than it has been,” Nord said. “So what we are doing to compensate is trying to spread out the work throughout the [harvest] year. We can hire workers in the early season and keep them longer, so they don’t move to other locations.”

Growers noted there may be a greater reliance on machine harvesting this year given the dearth of workers, which is being driven by tighter immigration restrictions and competition from other industries such as construction.

“We do some mechanical harvest and that helps take the pressure off,” said Chris Bowen, a vineyard manager for La Prenda Vineyards Management, which oversees more than 900 acres around Sonoma County.

Still, growers interviewed said they were optimistic, given that the weather to date has cooperated.

“So far, it looks like a good, clean crop. The zinfandel is looking great,” said Woody Hambrecht, whose family owns the Grist Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley. But Hambrecht cautioned that it was still too early to predict what will ultimately happen. He noted early autumn rains in 2011 greatly hindered that year’s harvest, as winemakers had to pick fast, before the grapes had ripened to the desired sugar levels, to avoid mildew and rot.

“It’s Mother Nature ... She threw us a curveball in 2011,” he said.

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

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