An Early Harvest Kicks Off in Sonoma County

A hot and dry summer means grapes are coming off vines far sooner than expected.

A worker harvests cabernet grapes
Photo: Tim Rue / Bloomberg via Getty Images

It's an unspoken rule that grape harvest happens from early August through October in California. Hotel rates skyrocket and restaurant reservations fill with visitors hoping to get a glimpse (and taste) of California winemaking — but if you made it to wine country a little early this year, you're in luck. In Sonoma, perhaps the most famous AVA on California's northern coast, harvest started last Friday, July 28th, earlier than nearly ever before. Just before dawn, crews of workers harvested Pinot Noir for Martin Ray Vineyards & Winery's next vintage of sparkling wine.

"It has begun" reads Martin Ray's tweet announcing the early harvest. Though earlier harvests are increasingly becoming common due to long heat waves and limited rainfall, the late-July harvest kick-off came nearly two weeks earlier than expected. According to Cornerstone Certified Vineyard owner Jim Pratt, who was managing the harvest crew at Martin Ray, the harvest was expected to begin on August 10th. But when tested in late July, the Pinot Noir grapes had already attained the right amount of sugar to start making wine. "It hit the spot," Pratt told The Press Democrat.

Heat wave or not, grapes for sparkling wines are almost always the first to be picked in any season. To achieve the fresh and vibrant flavor of sparkling wine, grapes are harvested just as they begin to ripen to help preserve acidity throughout the winemaking process and in the bottle. These are almost always thin-skinned varietals like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay which are easily susceptible to sun damage or smoke taint.

While the announcement of an earlier-than-predicted harvest feels like an eerie reminder of the industry's vulnerability to climate-related change, looking deeper into the phenomenon reveals that a sooner start isn't an entirely bad thing.

Slow Start, Fast Finish

Though 2022's pick was fast-tracked by three-digit temperatures that ripened grapes quickly, the heat wave is only one piece of the climate-related puzzle when it comes to the state of grapes this year. In Northern California and Oregon, frosts in late April and early May during a critical point in development(just as fruit started to set on vines), contributed to an already lower-than-normal projected yield. Minimal rainfall and high temperatures in early summer allowed for the fruit that successfully set in the spring to ripen quickly, and the dry conditions diminished risk of rot.

Though the early harvest came as a bit of a surprise, getting grapes off the vines protects them from increasingly unpredictable weather and risk of wildfires, from which smoke has tainted tons of crops. If this early start for sparkling wine is any indication of what's to come in the 2022 harvest, we're hoping for a speedy harvest of quality grapes across Sonoma county.

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