Sonoma County’s wine grapes ripening for harvest
The countdown to the annual grape crush has begun as clusters of fruit are slowly changing texture and color in pockets throughout Sonoma County, heralding the approach of a harvest season that is expected to come earlier while yielding a crop that will be less bountiful than previous record-breaking years.
Sonoma County vineyard managers said they have seen the first signs of veraison in their grape crops, starting a process of weather watching and vineyard preparation until harvest begins in late summer. During veraison — a French term that describes the visual onset of ripening — grapes used to make red wine turn from green to red and purple, while grapes used to make white wine transform from green to a golden yellow.
The 2014 growing season has been near ideal, raising growers’ hopes of a high-quality vintage.
Veraison Begins For Local Grapes
“Things are shaping up nicely,” said Steve Sangiacomo of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, which manages 1,600 acres of pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot vineyards. “We have had a lot of mild days, not a lot of cold spells nor heat spikes.”
The veraison process typically starts in the warmer regions of the county, such as the Alexander Valley. About 5 percent of the cabernet sauvignon crop has started turning color at Silver Oak Cellars’ vineyards in the northern part of the Alexander Valley, said Brad Petersen, vineyard manager for Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars.
Within the next three weeks, Petersen expects the process to sweep through the 225 acres of vineyards he manages that extend as far south down to the Russian River Valley. “It looks like this season will be a week or two weeks early,” he said.
Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said she is expecting an earlier than usual harvest this year, noting some vineyards along the Sonoma Coast region also are reporting signs of veraison, areas that are typically among the last to report given their cooler temperatures with a marine layer.
Harvest in Sonoma County usually begins around mid-August for grapes used in sparkling wine. Labor Day typically marks the beginning of harvest of grapes for still wine. But growers cautioned that the start of harvest could easily fluctuate depending on the weather patterns within the next month, with hotter days speeding up the process and cooler days slowing it down. Harvest typically lasts for eight weeks.
Napa Valley growers have already reported veraison, occurring from five to 10 days earlier than usual. Napa’s crop is expected to have a reduced merlot harvest as those grapes did not cluster completely because of wet and windy weather during flowering, according to the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
Harvest will usually occur within six weeks once a crop has reached 50 percent of veraison, said Duff Bevill, who manages 1,000 acres in the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.
In the meantime, growers are preparing their vineyards for harvest. Workers are busy removing leaves from vines, which gives the ripening fruit more exposure to the sun, and thinning grape clusters, which provides better balance to their vines. Some are on guard against mildew to prevent fungal growth, which has a negative effect on wine quality.
“Mildew has been a challenge this year,” Petersen said. “We have been trying to keep that under control.”
Sonoma County growers mostly agree this year’s crop will be smaller than last year’s record-breaking crop of 271,000 tons, which carried a value of $605 million. That followed a 2012 harvest that resulted in 267,000 tons and carried a $583 million value. Previous years were much lower. For example, the county reported 167,000 tons in 2011 and 192,000 tons in 2010.
“To have three years of big crops like this would be like hitting four home runs in a game or having back-to-back no-hitters,” Bevill said.
A less bountiful yield isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the county’s $13.4 billion wine industry because it could resolve oversupply issues from the last two years that have the potential to drive down prices. Another large harvest could strain wineries’ ability to find space in their tanks and barrels for the 2014 vintage. The focus for the industry has turned to grape quality, which growers expect will be high this year.
“It’s good for the industry. You don’t want to have an oversupply,” Bevill said.
While the state’s drought conditions are a continuing concern, some Sonoma County growers said it does not present an immediate obstacle for harvest compared to other wine regions such as Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. Local growers have benefited this year from light frost conditions and large storms that helped replenish vine roots.
“I think we have been fortunate in the North Bay,” said Dave Keatley, winemaker for Flowers Vineyard and Winery, which has 70 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay in the Fort Ross-Seaview region. “An early harvest may also help us.”