Love and Learning: Harvest 2020 in Sonoma County

While every season can be challenging, the truth is growers love working the land and cannot imagine doing anything else.

Just as it does in late summer each year, winegrape harvest kicked off in Sonoma County. Even with the lack of spring rain and a little frost, the growing season has been almost ideal. The first picks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for sparkling wine occurred in early August, about 10 days earlier than last year. The vines were ahead of schedule all season, and the lighter crop led to an earlier ripening of fruit. Growers, farmworkers, winery teams and vineyard managers around the county excitedly plan for this, their most important season. It is the culmination of hundreds of decisions and countless hours, when farmers and farmworkers see their hard work manifest in a crop that will eventually become another beautiful Sonoma County wine.

Keeping crews safe

Of course, like all seasons and traditions in 2020, this vintage was different. Due to the pandemic, harvest started with new adjustments and protocols to keep crews safe. Fortunate to work outside, growers found safe, innovative ways to keep crews small, creating “pods” of workers who could remain on the same crew throughout the season. Growers supplied masks and hand-washing stations everywhere from the vineyard to the winery. While these adjustments were new, the process of measuring sugars, picking the fruit and processing it at the winery was familiar during those first weeks of August.

Then came the lightning, which resulted in multiple wildfires, primarily affecting the Sonoma Coast, Russian River and Dry Creek areas. With the early start to harvest, more than 15 percent of the winegrapes were picked, but the high heat began ripening grapes quickly during an already critical time. And just when we farmers were adjusting to the impacts of the LNU Complex Fires, Mother Nature threw yet another curveball to Sonoma County and Napa Valley with the Glass Fire. If there is a silver lining, it’s that the heat spike that was partly to blame for the new wildfire intensity also motivated growers to expedite harvest throughout Sonoma County. An estimated 90 percent of the harvest was complete before this latest crisis.

It’s a fact that the wildfires will result in some of our Sonoma County grapes going unpicked this year, adding more financial stress for our farmers and farmworkers, following the pandemic and general chaotic rhythm of harvest.

The last four years have been particularly difficult harvests not just for local winegrowers, but for the entire community. These have been the seasons that build resilience and strength and which test us all. Traditionally, harvest is a special, exciting time for locals, grape growers, farmworkers and winemakers in our county. It’s a time where growers sport lucky shirts and beards, when the smell of sweet fruit and light fermentation can be detected in the air and where growers and workers celebrate the end of harvest with special meals and traditions as a family. With the challenges come new approaches, learning, increased communication and collaboration.

The tango with Mother Nature

Nearly 55,000 people work in the wine business—or in hospitality—in Sonoma County. While every season can be challenging, the truth is growers love working the land and cannot imagine doing anything else. They love the challenge of a new tango with Mother Nature, the camaraderie in the vineyard, and working together to ensure the highest quality fruit makes it to the winery. They take great pleasure in knowing that eventually, each bottle of Sonoma County will one day grace a holiday table, be enjoyed with a family meal, or with friends on the patio. There are so many ways to enjoy Sonoma County wines.

And for those who aren’t in the business, no doubt you, too, enjoy the harvest season. Perhaps you visit the wineries or take a drive along a country road to watch the truckloads of grapes come “into the barn.” Or, maybe you’ve had the bucolic experience of being caught behind a tractor or grape truck on Highway 12 or River Road. Maybe you’ve heard the sounds of harvesters or seen the flood lights illuminating the vineyards during night harvest, a practice that allows for more favorable work conditions and conserves the energy needed to keep the grapes cool as they make their way to winery. Whatever your experience with the local winegrape harvest, we hope you feel the magic of the season, that you have a chance to visit a winery, take in the scent of the vineyards or raise a glass to another quality Sonoma County vintage.

Despite the early challenges this year, harvest is still underway, there is still time to write the story of this vintage. Thank you to the firefighters and first responders who keep our community safe. And thanks to you, for pardoning our dust and our tractors, and for your support of local agriculture. This community helps keep Sonoma County beautiful and bountiful, and we couldn’t do it without you.

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