Slow and steady grape harvest to stretch past Halloween
After nearly a month of picking, the 2018 North Coast grape harvest remains slow but steady because of cooler summer temperatures than past years, likely resulting in a crop that will not be wrapped up until the first week of November.
Overall, Sonoma County growers have picked 15 to 20 percent of their grapes, mostly fruit to make sparkling wine and rosé. Those grapes are harvested at a lower sugar level, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.
Now, winemakers are primarily focused on Burgundian fruit such as pinot noir and chardonnay used for still wine. By the end of the month when harvest should peak in the region, they will turn their attention to late varietal reds such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The height of the annual harvest is easily recognizable by the trucks hauling bins of grapes in the early morning to local wineries.
The 2018 growing season has been mostly uneventful, a relief to vintners after a harrowing 2017 season with a Labor Day heat spike followed by the massive wildfires in early October. This year’s yield should be slightly above average, vintners said. The average tonnage reported over the past 10 years has been 462,149 tons for the counties of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The weather has cooperated this season. The summer has been cooler with no prolonged heat. For example, the highest temperature for Santa Rosa in the past month was 92 degrees on Sept. 10, according to the National Weather Service. The cooler temperatures have slowed the ripening of the grapes. Regional weather this year has been unusually temperate compared with the past five years.
“The heat spikes have been pretty minimal,” said Ryan Zepaltas, the winemaker at Healdsburg’s Copain Wines, which next week will finish harvesting for the coastal region of Sonoma County. “There shouldn’t be any excuses this year.”
He will resume picking grapes in early October in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, a premium region for pinot noir that is later for harvest this year.
This season, with the grapes hanging on the vines longer, the fruit will have a greater level of tannins for a wine that likely will have lesser alcohol content in the bottle.
The major downside to a longer 2018 season is the risk of significant rainfall, which occurred in 2011 and resulted in a much smaller crop as a result of fruit rot. Thus, wineries and growers invest a lot of money in meteorological software to track long-range weather patterns. The near-term outlook for the region is for mostly clear skies. The arrival of autumn brings a higher probability of rain.
“As far as the precipitation information we get, it seems pretty good through the end of the month,” said Justin Seidenfeld, director of winemaking at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, who is working his 14th harvest.
The winery picked chardonnay grapes Wednesday morning at the River West Vineyard, a property of the Syar Family Vineyards located just off of Westside Road.
The growing wildfire threat is another worry for winemakers. The fires on Oct. 8 resulted in a small percentage of the 2017 crop left to rot as a result of smoke taint. Last year’s crop was down 7 percent from 2106 in terms of yield. On Wednesday, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties because of sustained winds, meaning there’s a high risk of fires that could spread fast. The warning runs from 11 p.m. Wednesday through 5 p.m. Thursday.
Lake County growers already have tested their fruit this summer for potential effects from smoke coming from the sprawling Mendocino Complex fires.
Meanwhile, another winemaker, Alison Crowe of Plata Wine Partners in Napa, also was bullish on this season’s crop, with the summer weather highs in the mid- to upper-80s and lows in the 50s.
“Grapevines are very happy in that range,” she said.
Rodney Strong’s Seidenfeld said the chardonnay and pinot noir crop should be better than average years in terms of tonnage, while the sauvignon blanc about average.
“So far, I’m very happy,” he said. “If we can maintain this pace ... it will be very good.”