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‘It’s like New Year’s Day’: North Coast grape harvest kicks off in Napa Valley

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YOUNTVILLE — The 2019 North Coast grape harvest kicked off Tuesday before the sun peaked over the Vaca Range, signaling the start of another season for the wine industry, which pours billions into the regional economy and draws tourists from around the globe.

As colorful hot air balloons hovered overhead, a crew of about 20 workers picked grapes at the Rodgers Vineyard off Highway 29. They were scheduled to pick nearly 17 tons of pinot noir grapes, fruit that will go into sparkling wine produced by Mumm Napa for sale on store shelves in a few years.

“It’s like New Year’s Day,” said Tami Lotz, the Mumm Napa winemaker.

The region’s harvest started two days earlier than 2018, despite late May showers that soaked vineyards during peak bloom on grapevines. Although the rains damaged some grapes used to make malbec and grenache wines, the overall wine grape crop largely was spared, vintners said.

The late spring rainfall did force crews at Rodgers vineyard to spray sulfur to prevent powdery mildew that could have ruined the grapes, said Anna Hickey, president of the family-owned vineyard company now in its fifth generation.

The crop yield this season is expected to be close to the historical average, though the whims of Mother Nature and wildfire threats easily could alter grape harvesting that will continue in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties until the beginning of November.

Last year’s crop reached a record $2 billion in value — the amount before grapes were turned into premium wine — with an all-time high 588,864 tons of grapes crushed across the four-county region.

In Sonoma County, wineries will start picking later this week with the first grapes coming into Rack & Riddle Winery in Healdsburg on Thursday or Friday, said Mark Garaventa, general manager. Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol expects its first pick on Aug. 20, said Joy Sterling, partner and chief executive.

Fruit for sparkling wines is picked first because it needs to come into the winery with a lower sugar level than grapes for still wines to give them effervescence and higher acidity.

“We’re seeing some really fantastic acids this year and that is exactly what we are looking for in sparkling wine,” Lotz said.

Vineyard workers then will move on to pick grapes for Burgundian varietals like chardonnay and pinot noir. Typically by the end of September, workers will start to harvest the late red varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and then pick grapes for dessert wines.

This year’s harvest comes as the industry continues consolidating. Looming largest for many North Coast grape growers is the result of E. & J. Gallo Winery’s $1.7 billion planned acquisition of more than 30 low-price wine and spirits brands plus six wineries from Constellation Brands Inc. The deal, announced in April, will have an effect locally because many regional growers sell fruit to both companies, and Gallo’s purchase includes the Clos du Bois winery in Geyserville, along with notable brands with local ties such as Mark West and Ravenswood.

Gallo is the country’s largest family-owned winery with an estimated 70 million cases sold in 2018, while Constellation Brands was the third-largest at 50 million cases, according to Wine Business Monthly.

The pending deal between the two wine giants was expected to be finalized early in 2020. That could be pushed back, though, until late next year in order to satisfy regulators. In a May filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission Constellation, Constellation reported that the Federal Trade Commission asked both companies for additional information.

Mike Boer, a Ukiah Valley grape grower whose family owns roughly 45 vineyard acres, said Constellation has been an active grape buyer in Mendocino County and he hopes Gallo eventually would source more fruit from the area if its purchase of Constellation is approved. “Gallo really holds the key,” Boer said.

Already, there are concerns about an oversupply of grapes in certain local pockets with some wineries not renewing their multiyear contracts. Boer said Tuesday he hasn’t signed contracts for about 60% of his crop, about 300 tons, with any buyers so far.

“It has just been a dead market,” Boer said. “It seems like everyone is waiting to see what to do.”

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