Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: California Harvest In Question

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The grape harvest on the five Russian River Valley ranches supplying grapes to the winemakers at Sonoma-Cutrer wrapped up several weeks early this year, a testament more to good old-fashioned manpower than to the quality of the growing season.

Under the watchful eye of Javier Torres, the senior vineyard manager his colleagues refer to as “The Marlboro Man” because of his attire, 12-man crews made their way through the grape fields, wielding nothing more than a curved cutting knife and a lot of plastic boxes to take down an astounding one ton of grapes every 15 minutes.

“They’re really amazing to watch,” David Perata, Sonoma-Cutrer general manager, told me during a final-day harvest tour of the 1,100-acre complex. “They make it look effortless, but it’s quite a skill to be able to work that fast that long, and without damaging the fruit.

“They work in 12-man teams — eight to do the cutting, one to drive the tractor and three or so to handle the collection baskets, take care of any other tasks that need doing. Some of them have worked together for quite a while, so they make it a smooth operation.”

It is difficult to envision the precision and speed the harvest workers use to get the delicate little chardonnay grapes from vine to the washing and sorting station. The workers practically are a blur as they move from vine to vine, cutting and dropping grape clusters into collection bins in one sweeping motion.

This is the last year the scene at Sonoma-Cutrer will be seen only by employees and invited guests. The company, which is owned by beverage industry giant Brown-Forman of Louisville, Ky., is targeting a spring 2009 opening for visitors.

At that point, visitors will get to see the actual work depending on what season it is — pruning, planting, harvesting, trimming back the vines at the end of the season — tourists will see whatever is going on as they are taken through the complex on special motorized carts.

Sonoma-Cutrer, which had been a “white house” until producing a pinot noir harvest four years ago, is best known for wines created under winemaker Terry Adams, such as its Russian River Ranches cuvee crafted from several estate vineyards, and its Les Pierres and the Cutrer chardonnays.

They’re a bit different than a lot of other Sonoma County appellation wines, since the various ranches into which the complex is divided provide a variety of soils virtually side by side. The Cutrer vineyard, located about a dozen miles from the Pacific Ocean, is planted on what once was an ocean floor.

While management at Sonoma-Cutrer has expressed satisfaction with its harvest, that is not a unanimously-held opinion in California. Some areas report a shortage of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes after a growing season of erratic weather.

Coastal vineyards such as Sonoma-Cutrer’s have had to endure hard frosts, little rain and very hot spells.

“This is one of the strangest weather patterns that I have seen in more than 30 years of farming,” Andy Beckstoffer, the largest independent grower on California’s North Coast, told the Los Angeles Times. He said it is likely there will not be enough grapes to meet all the needs of wineries. That likely will be reflected in higher retail prices for finished wines.

In addition to the weather problems, the numerous wildfires that spread a blanket of smoke over much of the wine country has created some concern over impact on the quality of grapes.

Companies such as Winesecrets, in Sebastopol, Calif., remove unwanted substances from wine through filtration. If grapes are affected by smoke, the wine could have off-flavors, depending on the level of exposure. The extra filtration removes that taint.

(William M. Dowd covers the adult beverage world online at