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Merlot grapes at harvest Sonoma County Winegrowers
Weather and labor challenges affected this year's Sonoma County wine grape harvest.

Sonoma wine grape harvest faces weather, labor challenges

Sonoma's 2017 wine grape harvest on track to finish about mid-October

Weather will likely be a high topic of conversation as Sonoma County’s famed wine grape harvest finishes.

A year that began with record winter rainfall was followed by a mild spring and a scorching summer before welcome cooling came in mid-September. That respite helped bring order to the harvest, though it did not last long as rain sprinkles turned to thunderstorms in late September creating new concerns for growers.

Reports from the vineyards indicate that this year’s extreme weather, particularly the sustained heat waves, will likely impact the size of the harvest. Early estimates suggest an average size crop of excellent quality. However, in the past few weeks farmers report some significant weight loss in grapes due to the heat, which caused some growers and vintners to pick grapes earlier than they had planned.

Rain in the middle of the month forced farmers to check their grapes, open up the canopy, and in some instances use large blowers in the vineyards to dry out certain varieties prior to harvesting. Currently, about 70 percent of Sonoma County grapes have been harvested.

The other ongoing challenge facing Sonoma County wine grape growers is the availability of labor and the logistics of moving crews and equipment around the county. While there is not a critical shortage this season, the labor supply remains tight to the point that some growers are not harvesting on the day they want because workers are not available. Despite all the weather fluctuations and current labor supply, most growers still anticipate harvest being completed by mid-October.

Russian River Valley

With the Pinot Noir harvest almost complete and Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot and other varieties winding down, growers in the Russian River AVA have experienced two different harvests. For early ripening varieties that matured and were picked, nearly every grower cited excellent quality and better than average yields. For varieties ripening during or after the extreme heat wave in the beginning of September, growers experienced a noticeable drop in yields but were pleased with the quality.

Dry Creek Valley

Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are being picked or will soon begin harvest. The growing season had it all – perfect growing conditions, a number of searing heat waves and late summer rains, while cooler weather in September helped return schedules back to normal.

Alexander Valley

Harvest has been completed for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Other varieties in the AVA, including Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and Malbec, should be completed in the next two to three weeks. Like elsewhere in Sonoma County, the 2017 harvest has been intense with conditions changing every few days under a consistent struggle to find sufficient labor.

Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak

Harvest should be completed in the next two weeks. Tonnage is down slightly while quality is average to excellent depending on the variety and the vineyard. Much of the Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon is being harvested this week. Labor is tight.

Sonoma Coast

Growers are taking advantage of the cooler weather to prolong time on the vine. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Riesling are or will soon be harvested. A common refrain has been that brix levels are steady but not quite ready for harvest. Along with labor concerns, weather has been the greatest challenge facing growers, especially over the past two months of the season.  

Sonoma Valley

Growers throughout the AVA are racing to complete harvest within the next week to 10 days. Varieties were impacted differently by the heat throughout the AVA. One grower reported his Chardonnay was picked 30 percent light while his Malbec and Merlot were the same yield levels as last year. Other growers reported both exceptional quality and yields. Growers are hoping that hand labor will be freed up to enable Sonoma Valley growers to access crews when they need it since the harvest is winding down in other parts of Sonoma County.

Sonoma Mountain

Harvest is winding down for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with most harvested around the heat wave over Labor Day weekend at exceptional quality. Harvest is currently beginning for Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel on Sonoma Mountain with completion likely around the end of October. Sugar levels and flavors are close. The summer’s heat waves did burn leaves and desiccated some fruit particularly among Merlot. With that said, quality looks good with overall yields slightly below normal.


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