Union Democrat staff

It's been a relatively late harvest for grape growers in the Mother Lode, leaving many saying better late than never.

Vineyards in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties have reported modest yields and average fruit quality after temperatures remained low well into the early months of the growing season and an early fall rainstorm drenched crops across the Northern California region.

Many grape growers prepared for the worst after the late September storms threatened to cause widespread rot and fruit-killing frost. But an extended period of mild, sunny weather rapidly dried out the more than 3 inches of precipitation that fell across the foothills.

"We started out six weeks late and we're still six weeks late," said

Matt Hatcher, owner of Hatcher Winery in Murphys. "Mother nature has

given us a chance to get rip, and boy we feel fortunate."

Hatcher said the past month has made all the difference to properly

ripen grapes, improve overall quality and keep sugar levels within the

range favored by most winemakers. He said about 80 percent of his

grapes have been harvested, and the remaining 20 percent should be

picked by the end of the week. He hopes to crush a total of 100 tons of

fruit to produce roughly 72,000 bottles of wine.

"I can't stop being thankful for the weather this year," Hatcher said. "Last year was certainly a difficult year."

Paul Verdegaal, a viticulturist with the University of California

Cooperative Extension, said this year's weather had the greatest impact

on mid and late season varieties like zinfandel, petite syrah, cabernet

sauvignon and merlot. He said overall grape yields in the region are 30

to 40 percent below average.

Statewide wine grape production is expected to be down 9 percent

from 2010, with a projected harvest of 3.3 million tons, according to

the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Vinescapes owner Mark Skenfield, who manages 18 vineyards around

Calaveras County, said he plans to continue harvesting late-ripening

varieties for the rest of the week.

"I think 2011 wine quality will be pretty good," he said. "The

fruit is not as pristine, but that doesn't mean we're not going to have

good wine."

He said cooler temperatures don't stimulate the production of sugar

in the grapes as rapidly as hotter years. Sugar content, pH levels and

acidity all play essential roles in the fermentation process, and

weather changes can have a profound affect on the outcome of a vintage.

"In longer growing seasons, the fruit gets the chance to develop other characteristics besides sugar," he said.

Vineyards have so far been successful in staving off several

invasive pests that damage fruit and carry plant diseases, according to

Calaveras County Agriculture Commissioner Mary Mutz.

She said the county has recently wrapped up a program aimed at

tracking the European Grape vine moth. None of the pests, which produce

larvae that feed on developing fruit and flowers, were found in any of

the 76 traps placed around Calaveras County.