Jeff Morgan of Covenant Wines walks in Scopus Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Jeff Morgan of Covenant Winery walks in Scopus Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Jeff Morgan of Covenant Winery in Berkeley stood in a vineyard at the top of Sonoma Mountain recently and examined the bright green cluster of grapes he was holding in one hand. He noticed there were small brown specks covering the grape globes and a smattering of raisins on nearby vines — all signs that the Chardonnay grapes were getting ready to be picked.

It was the second trip Morgan had taken to the vineyard in as many weeks, and it won’t be his last. Driving is a major part of any urban winemaker’s life. While having a winery in Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville or other part of the East Bay means winemakers are closer to the restaurants, wine-club members and tasters that are their customers, during harvest it means driving hundreds of miles on a truck every week.

“Every other day I am driving up and sampling vineyards,” said Mike Dashe, who gets his grapes from vineyards in Sonoma County and brings them to be crushed at Dashe Cellars in Oakland.

Jared Brandt (left), who owns Berkeley-based Donkey & Goat with his wife, Tracey Brandt, crushes grapes with two interns, Daniel Cosme (center) and Johnnie Magana III (right). Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Jared Brandt of Donkey & Goat in Berkeley got up at 3:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday to drive to Mendocino County where he oversaw the picking of 90-year old Grenache Gris grapes for his Isabel’s Cuvée, named after his daughter. He was back on the road by 8:00 a.m. and arrived at his winery on Fifth Street around 11 a.m. By noon, Brandt and three others were stomping the grapes with their bare feet. The pressed clusters would sit for five days fermenting before the juice would be pressed out of them.

Donkey & Goat has so many different wineries in so many different counties that Tracey Brandt, Jared’s wife and the winery’s co-owner, keeps a giant grid on a white board in the office. It’s how she keeps track of when each vineyard needs to be picked.

The Brandts keep track of when they picked each vineyard on a huge whiteboard in their office. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The California harvest is early this year, the result of a mild spring and early bud break. Morgan picked some Chardonnay around Aug. 19. By early September, he had already processed 50 tons of grapes at Covenant, about 35% of his total production. The grapes are coming in so fast that Morgan is having trouble finding room for them all.

“It’s a juggling act to free up tank space and fermentation space,” said Morgan, who called it “a classic problem in California.”

Brandt said that 2015 “was a weird year.” He had picked his first grapes from El Dorado County on July 31, which is very early, but some vineyards were not ripening as fast as last year.

Dashe said the harvest was accelerated.

“As of this week we will have more than half, if not 65% of our product in,” he said on Sept. 1. “Typically we don’t start harvesting until after Labor Day, so having 65% of our harvest done before Labor Day is amazing.”

Freshly picked grapes at Donkey & Goat in West Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Empty barrels at Covenant Wines in Berkeley waiting to be filled. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The heat spike in mid-August accelerated the ripening of the grapes, but then the weather in northern California cooled into the mid-80s, giving the grapes a chance to recover and slow down. The grape yield is low this year, which means winemakers won’t produce as much wine as they did in the past three stellar years, but most say the quality will be very good.

When Morgan drove to Sonoma Mountain to Scopus Vineyard on Aug. 23, he was convinced he would be back up there in a few days to harvest. He walked down the two rows of grapes allotted to Covenant, picked random grapes to sample, and gathered others in a plastic bag to take back to the winery to test their sugar levels on the Brix scale — which measures sugar levels.

“What I am looking for is ripeness,” said Morgan. (Watch the video above). “I want to see grapes that have a golden color.”

Morgan bought the Chardonnay grapes back to Covenant. He macerated them and used a small instrument to measure their Brix level. While he had thought the grapes were almost ready to pick, they weren’t. The level of sugar was 20.4%, still a long way away from the optimal 23.5% or 24.5%.

When Nosh caught up with Morgan on Sept. 1, he was standing in the middle of a vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma. He had come to oversee the picking of Merlot grapes from Allen Nelson’s vineyard there. The yield had been so low that Morgan had difficulty getting enough grapes to make up the eight tons he wanted.

Morgan had gone back to Scopus Vineyard on Sunday Aug. 30 to check on the Chardonnay grapes. They weren’t ready. The Brix level was about 22.3%.

“I tasted them. They tasted a little better but they didn’t taste quite right,” he said.

Morgan now hopes he will be able to pick those grapes the week of Sept. 7.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...