Fruit starts turning color, signaling grape harvest a month away on North Coast

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As he walked around zinfandel vines Thursday at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, Ryan Stapleton said he was pleased to see the grapes started turning from green to purple — a harbinger that the wine grape harvest in the North Coast will kick off next month.

“I feel pretty confident so far with what we have. You never know what Mother Nature brings tomorrow,” said Stapleton, manager of grower relations for the winery.

This year’s crop is about a week behind the 2018 harvest, which started on August 15 for grapes going into sparkling wine. Like Coppola, vineyards across the region have started to enter a pre-harvest stage called veraison, the French term that describes the ripening of grapes used in red wines as they change color.

Most of the veraison is occurring with grapes for pinot noir wines, but the colors also are changing of cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel grapes in Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.

In Lake County, the 100 vineyard acres at the Boatique winery in Kelseyville still are weeks away from veraison since harvest typically comes later there, said Robert Mount, proprietor for the winery.

“It looks as good as last year, maybe a little lighter, not much,” Mount said.

At Coppola, Stapleton indicated that a warm stretch of 90-degree weather could push the ripening and allow for a harvest along a similar time frame as last year. His hope is to finish picking by Halloween at the end of October.

In fact, he may get his wish since temperatures are predicted to reach the upper 90s here this weekend, another reminder of the mercurial nature of the grape growing season.

The big news so far surrounding the upcoming 2019 harvest is that it turns out May showers that came during peak bloom did not affect the wine grape crop as much as feared, growers said.

Local farmers worried the rainfall would cause shatter, which occurs when grapevine’s fragile flowers do not pollinate and fail to develop into grapes — and result in a smaller crop. That appears not to be the case for most grape varieties.

“It’s about average (yield). Every year is different. This year we got a lot of variation in berry size,” said Mark Greenspan, president of Advanced Viticulture Inc. of Windsor, a consultant to many local vineyards.

A few varieties did suffer some shatter from the lousy weather, specifically malbec and grenache, though Greenspan said the pinot noir crop wasn’t hurt as originally feared. Pinot noir vineyards — the most expensive grape in Sonoma County — did have some clusters with normal-size berries called “hens,” along with smaller seedless berries known as “chicks.”

Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines in the Russian River Valley said she also was surprised with the perseverance of this year’s fruit as May’s weather, with some overcast days and wind, had her initially thinking as much as 60% of her crop could be wiped out.

“I have been amazed at how beautiful this crop looks,” Inman said. She has 10.5-acre estate vineyard and expects this year’s yield to be slightly above normal.

The 2018 grape crop reached a record $2 billion in value, as workers picked an all-time high 588,864 tons of grapes in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

That high tonnage resulted in an oversupply of wine in the premium market at a time when retail sales slowed, making it more of a buyer’s market for grapes that are not under contract.

Although many regional growers avoided crop losses from the wet weather in May, there’s still concerns about the risk of wildfires. Those worries aren’t expected to ease until the grapes hit the crush pad this fall.

In 2018, Lake County growers lost at least $37.1 million from smoke-tainted grapes damaged by the Mendocino Complex fires. Mount’s Kelseyville winery took a $1 million loss last year.

“Last year, we got clobbered,” he said.

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

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