Following two very poor seasons in a row, Sonoma County wine grape growers are winding down a year that has been marked by ideal growing conditions, the biggest Pinot Noir crop is a long time, grapes of superior quality and, best of all, black ink in their books.
“The crop has been coming in with nice, clean grapes with great flavors,” says Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Santa Rosa, Calif. “Winemakers are ecstatic about the quality of the fruit this year,”
Even the first fall rains weren’t expected to have much impact on the 20 percent or so of the grapes remaining to be harvested at that point. By then, he notes, almost all of the white varieties, which are most susceptible to rain damage during harvest, had been picked. So too had the Pinot Noir, Petite Syrah and Zinfandel, the red varieties that cause growers to worry when it rains. Cabernet Sauvignon, the bulk of grapes still hanging on the vines in late October, are among the reds least susceptible to damage from harvest rains.
Also low levels of botrytis in the vineyards this spring reduced the chances of fruit infection this fall, Frey adds.
The only glitch in the harvest has been capacity of the wineries to ferment the grapes. “The winemakers are running out of tank space and barrels to hold the new wine,” Frey says. “So, growers cannot get their grapes harvested as timely as they would like. We seem to experience that crunch every year, but it might be a little worse this time.”
The situation reflects higher yields, overall, than growers harvested in each of the last two years. “We think this year’s crop size will be above 200,000 tons, our benchmark for normal production.” Frey says.
Some Sonoma County growers began picking a little of their Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir crop in late August. However, Labor Day marked the real start of this year’s harvest activities. Frey looks for growers to finish the job by early November.
This year, with yields exceeding contracted production levels in many cases, some wineries are taking all the grapes growers deliver. Some are accepting overage but at a lower price. Others want only the grapes they contracted for. In that situation growers have been able sell their extra grapes at a discount, Frey reports.
“With the stronger prices and crop this year, growers, for the most part, are meeting their budget income goals,” he says. “Any overage they sell gives them some added income. That’s really critical. Following two or even three tough years, profitability is returning to our grape growers.”