Late-Harvest Jitters in Wine Country


Normally by Labor Day weekend, the wine grape harvest in Sonoma and Napa counties would be in full swing under a blazingly hot sun.

Not this year, though.

Most vineyards are two to four weeks behind last year’s schedule because the summer’s cool, foggy, breezy weather has delayed the ripening process. The harvest for sparkling wine grapes--which normally gets under way in mid-August--has barely begun, and the rest of the grapes probably won’t be ready until mid- or late September.

“The wind is putting goose bumps on the berries,” Lee Martinelli, proprietor of a boutique winery near this Sonoma County town, said this week as he surveyed part of his 300 acres of vineyards.


In the worst-case scenario, anxious growers say, the late start could mean that the harvest of grapes used in the region’s premium wines will bump up against the fall rainy season--assuming that drought-stricken Northern California gets its usual dose of showers in September and October.

A heavy, lingering rain, they say, could interrupt the harvest and rot the grapes.

Not to worry, says Lee Hudson, president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Assn. and owner of Hudson Vineyards in the Carneros region on the Napa-Sonoma county line.

“There are guys running up and down this valley who are so freaked out,” he said. “Sure, a cool July and August create the potential for problems. But if we can finish this up with a good Indian summer, it’s going to be dynamite.”

Indeed, the very conditions that have held down the grapes’ sugar content--lingering morning fog and limited hours of sunshine--"make for a slow, even ripening,” said Bill Dyer, winemaker for Sterling Vineyards, south of Calistoga.

Up to a certain point, the longer the “hang time” that the grapes have on the vine, the more color, flavor and intensity they will have. A similar growing season in 1985 produced an excellent crop.

“The acidity is retained, and the grapes have a very nice balance,” Dyer said. “It’s promising and yet risky at the same time.”

For Bruce Cakebread, winemaker at his family’s Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, the “late” harvest is bringing back memories of the way things were before the precocious harvests of recent years.

“If you compare this year to the 1980s, we’re two to three weeks late,” he said. “But in the 1970s . . . Labor Day weekend was always the last big weekend you got off to have your fling. The harvest usually started between Sept. 5 and 10.”

His visits to the vineyards indicate that the vines “don’t look stressed. . . . So for us, it looks like a very good year.”

However, growers’ jumpiness is understandable, Cakebread allowed. In 1989, an on-schedule harvest was devastated by an untimely mid-September rain that drenched vineyards for three days--just as the Chardonnay crop was about to be picked. Many growers lost 30% to 40% of their crop “off the bat,” Cakebread said.

Thanks to improved techniques in the vineyards, growers appear to be better prepared for rain. Some have thinned their heavy crops to speed the ripening of the remaining fruit so that the harvest can move along as quickly as possible.

Growers also have taken to clipping excess leaves around the grape clusters to allow more sun to get to the grapes. The thinner leaf cover should enable sun and breezes to do their drying work sooner after a shower.

Grape growers are not alone in sweating out the late harvest.

“Everything’s late this year"--from rice to cherries to peaches--according to Ray Borton, senior agricultural economist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento. “There’s been no protracted hot weather to hurry things along.”

For now, most grape growers are remaining philosophical. “I’ve been raising grapes for 25 years,” said Tim Murphy of Murphy-Goode Estate Winery in Geyserville, “and I’ve never seen a normal year yet.”

The 1990 California Crush

* 2.15 million tons of California wine grapes were crushed.

* Growers sold those grapes for an average of $306 a ton. However, premium varietal types grown in Napa and Sonoma counties, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, sold for as much as $2,000 a ton.

* Nearly 170,000 tons of Chardonnay grapes were crushed, a 90% increase over the 1986 level. This year, Chardonnay is expected to show an average 17% increase, primarily from new acreage.

* North Coast counties--Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Solano and Sonoma--grew wine grapes on 83,342 acres, or 25.2% of the state’s total wine-grape acreage. Wineries and distilleries in those counties crushed about 280,000 tons of grapes.

* During the six-week harvest and crush period, the wine industry generates 40,000 to 50,000 additional jobs over the average 110,000 that exist throughout the rest of the year.

Source: Wine Institute