Grape harvest under way in Napa Valley

By Cathy Bussewitz August 10, 2012
As the sun rose over Atlas Peak early Friday, speckling golden light on misty grapevines in Oakville, a crew of 30 pickers hustled ripe clusters of pinot noir grapes off the vine.

The clusters were nimbly cut free and gingerly dropped into bins headed up the Silverado Trail for Mumm Napa, in the first reported grape harvest of the year on California's North Coast.

"The action is on," said Alex Vyborny, owner of Vyborny Vineyard Management, which manages 1,000 acres of vineyards throughout Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. "The quality should be really good. We've had great weather."

Vyborny's crews were harvesting grapes for Mumm's Brut Rose. With sweaty brows, harvesters lunged at the grapevines, deftly cutting three or four plump clusters with one swoop of the arm, and running through the stony vineyards with heavy bins laden with fruit. Occasionally, a hummed song or a burst of cheers rose through the air.

"You can hear the excitement," said Doug Springer, grower relations manager for Mumm Napa. "So far it's an excellent season. The weather's cooperating very well."

Grapes for sparkling wine are harvested several weeks ahead of those crushed for still wines, because they can be picked at lower sugar levels. Though this year's harvest began several weeks before it did last year, it was right on schedule for a normal harvest, growers said.

"It's been a dream growing season this year," said Ludovic Dervin, winemaker for Mumm Napa. "It's probably the healthiest growing season I've seen in 20 years in California."

In Sonoma County, the harvest action likely will begin on Tuesday, when crews are scheduled to begin picking grapes for J Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, said winery spokesman George Rose.

"Nice to see a normal start to harvest," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "It really increases the odds for a good harvest before fall rains."

Harvest for sparkling wines made by Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards likely will begin in about a week, and they're expecting a larger crop than average, said Steven Urberg, winemaker.

"I don't want to jinx myself here, but so far it's looked very good," Urberg said. "And we've had a couple of short harvests here, so having something come in a little heavier than average will be nice."

Harvest for red and white wines in Sonoma County likely will begin in the last week of August, Frey said.

Labor is likely to be a growing issue as harvest continues, and supply has already been tight, Vyborny said.

"They've shut the borders down so hard, nobody can come in anymore," Vyborny said. "So there's not enough field labor. During the peak of the harvest, you'll be competing, unless you have loyal employees and pay them well."

So far, he's managed with a crew of about 70 full-time workers who receive health benefits and are paid about $15 to $20 per hour, he said.

"It's a 180 from last year, which was very challenging....Mother Nature has a way of keeping us very humble," Springer said. "It's a wonderful season so far, and we certainly expect it to continue, but it ain't over until it's over."