Grape harvest

Workers harvest Chardonnay grapes for wine at Beringer Vineyards at dawn in 1996. (Eric Luse / San Francisco Chronicle / August 29, 1996)

Hard to believe: It’s barely August and the California grape harvest has begun.

Granted, it's still happening only sporadically at scattered vineyards. And we’re not talking Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, yet. At the moment, it’s mostly white grapes going into the baskets, especially those destined for sparkling wine programs.

But we’re already getting reports via social media from winemakers regarding the early start and the quality of the grapes in this drought year.

Abe Scholium of the Scholium Project reports he’s already got 4 tons of Verdelho from Bokisch Vineyards in the eastern hills of Lodi in the tank. Early bird!

And he's not the only one. On Monday, several winemakers, including Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz in Malibu, started to pick for their sparkling wine programs.  And Matt Dees of Jonata and Goodland Wines started to pick Sauvignon Blanc out in Happy Canyon a few days ago.

Joshua Klapper of La Fenetre Wines in Santa Barbara County tweeted that he expects to start picking Chardonnay in Happy Canyon today. Christina Turley of Turley Wine Cellars chimed in, “Yep,” they had begun picking, with a beautiful photo of tight-clustered Zinfandel grapes.

Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co.  in Sonoma tweeted that he’ll be picking grapes for rosé in COCO (“Contra Costa County, Oakley basically”) today and grapes for bubbles on Saturday in Chalone AVA, Brosseau Vineyard. 

Jill Bernheimer of the eclectic Hollywood wine shop domaineLA sent along an Instagram from @ownrooted (a.k.a. viticulture student Tegan Passalaqua) showing workers harvesting “Verdelho from Vista Luna Vineyard in the Borden ranch” in Lodi a couple of nights ago. 

Not everyone is ready to go, though. Sommelier and wine director for Michael Mina Restaurant Group Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines responded, “Not for us. We might pick some Chardonnay for sparkling in a week or so. It's been quite cold in Sta. Rita Hills.”

Folks on Facebook, naturally, have more to say. According to Ken Morris at Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, “We're two weeks ahead of normal. Ivo Jeramaz, our VP of Vineyards & Production, reports we’ve enjoyed amazing weather for a grape: slightly warmer nights than usual, which boost flavor development, and moderate daytime temperatures that slow sugar accumulation. A bit higher humidity than usual this summer helps ensure the grapes and soil have only a small loss of moisture. The grapes are spotless with no sign of disease.”

V. Sattui Winery’s winemaker, Brooks Painter, comments, “The extremely dry conditions this year are proving a challenge to growers in Napa Valley, but things look good. This year’s harvest is predicted to be about one to two weeks earlier than last year. The quality looks excellent, with a decent crop, but not huge. The vines are in great shape, but some blocks are starting to show some signs of stress. Luckily, with the early harvest we should have ample water in reservoirs and wells to complete the irrigation season.”

Morgan Clendenen, owner and winemaker at Cold Heaven Cellars in Santa Barbara County, confirms that harvest is beginning. “Au Bon Climat is getting Pinot from Bien Nacido in a few days. Chard from another source next week. Harvest is coming…”

Peter Cargasacchi of Cargasacchi in the Central Coast writes, “We are about 30 days ahead, and the reason is, the prolonged drought. In a nutshell, dry soils have less mass and it takes less heat to change their temperature. Even though December was very cold, (remember the polar vortex?) the weather was dry, the soils stayed dry and as a result did not have much mass. With the dry soils, as we got into January and February, it did not take much heat to shift the soil temperature upward. Temperature drives plant metabolism and a primary signal for grapevine bud break is temperature. So the rapidly warming, dry soils, initiated a very early bud break. We may be harvesting our Cargasacchi sparkling wine in August this year instead of September. We normally pick Pinot Noir for still wine in the middle of October, but it will certainly be picked in September. Batten the hatches.”

We’ll have more updates as the harvest progresses.

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