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Napa, Sonoma grape harvest begins

The 2017 grape harvest began early Monday morning as workers in both Napa and Sonoma counties picked pinot noir grapes that will be turned into premium sparkling wine.

The small Monday morning pick symbolizes the growing season’s culmination for a crop that has driven the North Coast’s economy for generations.

At dawn, about 40 workers picked a block of the grapes at Green Island Vineyard in American Canyon, located along the edge of the Napa River and San Pablo Bay. They quickly and efficiently harvested the 5 acres of grapes in about three hours under an overcast sky, with a few crew leaders giving out instructions in Spanish.

In Sonoma County, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in Sonoma also harvested its first crop Monday at the western edge of the Carneros wine region. Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol will start its harvest today.

“It is rewarding so far because it has been a challenging growing season,” said Mumm Napa winemaker Ludovic Dervin, who will turn Monday’s grapes into bubbly that should be ready for sale in about three years. Mumm’s wines sell from $25 to $125 a bottle.

Napa County typically starts its harvest before Sonoma County because its more inland climate is warmer. Grapes for sparkling wine are picked early in the season because the fermentation process that creates its bubbles require a lower sugar level than still wines. The longer the grapes hang on the vines, the higher the sugar.

This year’s harvest looks more like the historic norm than the early picks of recent years.

Its Aug. 7 start date is typical and the season should wrap up by early November.

Last year, harvest kicked off 10 days earlier, on July 28. The earliest start ever was July 22, 2015 at Mumm. The season should wrap up by early November.

The crop is expected to generate at least an average yield, growers said, with the 10-year average being 461,648 tons. Last year, 503,965 tons of wine grapes were harvested in the North Coast, which was a 25 percent increase over the dismal 2015 season. That 2016 fruit generated a cash value of almost $1.5 billion, including a record of $717 million in Napa County and another $581 million in Sonoma County.

The season started with heavy winter rains, welcome after five years of drought, that helped rejuvenate the root systems of the vines.

But the rainfall also delayed essential pruning generally done in the first weeks of the new year. In the spring, bud break occurred without any extreme temperature changes that could have threatened the setting of the fruit.

The summer, meanwhile, has not featured any extreme or prolonged heat spikes that could cause grapes to shrivel on the vines. Grape growers, however, did confront aggressive leaf growth on their canopies, which led to sporadic outbreaks of powdery mildew, a fungus that can lessen grape quality and quantity if left unchecked.

“Mildew has been a challenge in some locations,” said Julie Nord of Nord Vineyard Services in Napa, who oversaw Monday’s pick at the Green Island Vineyard.

She added that the later harvest allowed her workers to strip off more leaves at the various vineyards she manages in both Napa and Sonoma counties, allowing better air flow and sun to reach the grapes.

“We had so much work to do with the bigger canopies, it was nice to have a few extra days,” Nord said.

Like other vineyard managers, Nord has found it difficult to recruit workers in a tight labor market. But she has given more of her employees year-round work to ensure that she will have a sufficient crew for harvest.

“One of the reasons we like to pick for Mumm is because we are the first ones to pick,” Nord said. “Once they (workers) start with us, they tend to be loyal.”

Crews with Domaine Chandon in Yountville also picked on Monday, harvesting 8 acres of pinot noir from its estate vineyard for sparkling wine.

“Everything coming in today looks great - color-wise, cluster size, and overall uniformity,” said Patrick Riggs, viticulturist at Domaine Chandon, in a statement.

Gloria Ferrer had planned to start its first pick around Aug. 15.

But a few pinot noir blocks were fully ripened in the aftermath of a recent heat spike and needed to be harvested, said Steven Urberg, Gloria Ferrer’s director of winemaking.

“Ordinarily, I would have picked them in a week or so,” Urberg said.

The Gloria Ferrer winery crew will now have to balance its duties this week with the grapes coming into the crush pad as it also finishes up bottling last year’s vintage, he said.

Despite the logistical challenge, Urberg said he was bullish on the quality of this year’s crop.

“Everything looks right,” he said. “There’s even ripening. It’s a good crop load. The vines look in balance.”

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