Harvest hits the halfway point in Sonoma County (w/video)

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Thanks to continued mild weather, the North Coast grape harvest remains ahead of schedule and some winemakers may even finish picking their fruit by the beginning of October, according to growers and analysts.

About half of Sonoma County’s crop has already been harvested, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, an industry trade group. The early harvest is on track to yield an average-size crop, nowhere close to 2013’s record-breaking crush when Sonoma County growers harvested 271,000 tons of grapes with a value totaling $605 million.

“We could be done in two weeks,” said Nova Perrill, assistant winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg. “It’s probably the most condensed harvest in my 10 years as a professional winemaker.”

The winery is expected to take in 1,700 tons of grapes from its vineyards in the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys, Perrill said, including fruit that will be featured in an incredibly aromatic sauvignon blanc.

Dry Creek’s experience is similar to other wineries around the region as harvest is running two to four weeks earlier than usual for some varietals. Typically, the main North Coast grape harvest runs from Labor Day to the first of November, though grapes used for sparkling wines are picked in August.

This year, the North Coast harvest kicked off July 29 at Mumm Napa, the Napa Valley winery’s earliest start in a decade.

Growers say the early harvest is a plus because it will allow them get their grapes out of the vineyards before the arrival of the rainy season, which exposes grapes to the threat of rot. Overnight showers, forecast to drop a tenth of an inch of rain on Santa Rosa on Wednesday night and this morning, are expected to give way to warm days over the next week, allowing vineyards to quickly dry out from the brief storm. But weather remains an unpredictable factor that will influence the size and quality of the 2014 vintage.

“Things can turn on a dime, depending on Mother Nature,” Kruse said.

With every passing day, growers are hauling in grapes and placing them into the safety of winery tanks. Gloria Ferrer Winery in Sonoma, which specializes in sparkling wine, picked the remaining of its 2,300-ton crop Friday with the last of its chardonnay grapes, said Steven Urberg, vineyard manager. The yield was close to what winery officials had estimated.

He called this year’s harvest “the earliest in recent memory” and “textbook beautifully average.”

Growers noted that they caught a break this year from the weather. Late winter rains, which helped provide moisture prior to bud blooming, were followed by an absence of prolonged heat spikes this summer.

“The weather has been perfect,” Urberg said.

But yields in Sonoma County have varied widely from last year, depending on the location of the vineyard, according a report by Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato wine broker. Some growers are finding less fruit than they expected, especially if they did not water or fertilize sufficiently.

Twenty percent of Sonoma County’s pinot noir crop has been picked, with more clusters than last year though with smaller berries. About 5 percent of the chardonnay vineyards in cooler areas such as the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys have been harvested. Wineries also have scheduled merlot and other red blends to be picked, which is two to three weeks earlier than last year.

“We’re looking at some very good quality wines,” said Brian Clements, Turrentine vice president. “The water we did receive was crucial. We had a good lush canopy throughout the season.”

Mendocino County is picking about 10 to 25 percent lighter on its overall crop this year, compared to 2013, while Lake County’s sauvignon blanc looks lighter while its cabernet sauvignon yields are about the same as last year, according to Turrentine Brokerage.

Tom Gore, vineyard director for Simi Winery in Healdsburg, noted the unpredictability of this year’s crop. Normally, the harvest progresses from white varietals to red varietals, ending with hearty red grapes like cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. But this year, he said, the varietals are not following their usual sequential order to be ready for harvest. For example, Simi picked six different varietals in the past two days.

“You go out there and it tastes great,” Gore said. “What are you going to do, go out there and not pick it?”

Some vineyards are experiencing stressed-out vines as a result of a lack of water, which could produce a lower yield and affect grape quality. The issue is problematic for vineyards along the upper Russian River, where surface supplies have been stretched during the drought. It’s signs also can be seen on vineyard leaves, which are already turning color.

A prolonged heat spell could damage the crop by drying out the remaining fruit, several growers warned.

“I think the growers that have struggled already are still struggling,” Kruse said. “We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that we will be able to skate by this year.”

The prospects for Sonoma County’s wine industry remain bright, according to a new report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The report, with research provided by Moody’s Analytics, predicted winery profits should improve modestly in 2014, the result of increased volumes and higher prices. The county’s crop is also expected to increase modestly in future years, with bigger increases for luxury wines.

Sonoma County wineries sold $1.6 billion of wine directly to consumers last year and are poised to benefit as states reduce barriers to wine shipments, the report said. The county, which specializes in four of the top five grape varietals purchased via direct sales, accounts for about one-fifth of the volume and revenue of wines sold directly to consumers, the report said.

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

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