Under threatening and rainy skies, the wine grape harvest is under way around Southern Oregon.

The crush is on.

Under threatening and rainy skies, the wine grape harvest is under way around Southern Oregon.

Pallet Wine Co. in downtown Medford processed its first grapes of the season Saturday, 1.8 tons from Dancin Vineyards off South Stage Road.

Pallet winemaker Linda Donovan said growers Dan and Cindy Marca brought in 50 percent more grapes than originally anticipated, which should bode well for Rogue Valley growers.

"It's a good indication that we will have higher yields than last year," Donovan said.

The custom crush winery handled 220 tons last year, but anticipates processing about 400 tons for its 30 clients in the Illinois, Rogue and Umpqua valleys this year.

"It all depends on how close people are on their estimate on tonnages," she said.

Dan Marca said Dancin Vineyards' early pinot noir picking came a year to the day after harvest in 2010.

"We were much further behind earlier on this year," he said. "We caught up quickly, though, and were waiting for the right moment to pick."

The catch-up took place in the last three weeks of September.

"We had much warmer weather," Marca said. "Comparing last year to this year, you could see the difference and it allowed us to cross the finish line the same time as last year."

Even the brix count — the measure of sugar residing in the grapes — played out similarly to 2010 on the three acres near Bellinger Lane.

"I received the numbers on Sunday and the brix were within a half point of last year," he said. "This harvest was a little higher; the acids were great. All and all the timing was perfect."

Although Saturday's crush was just a drop in the barrel for the region's winemaking, it was another milestone in an adventurous year in which growers wondered whether the summer would ever come and now hope wintry weather will hold off another month.

Donovan was in the Illinois Valley on Monday, looking at grapes, observing mildew pressure and helping clients to order barrels.

"It's going to be a short processing season," Donovan said. "The rain is setting us back a bit, but by this time next week we should get really busy, sometimes processing 24 hours."

At that pace, she said, Pallet can turn around 50 tons of grapes per day.

On the upper end of the Rogue Valley, Mary and Steve Gardner of Crater Lake Cellars encountered their own challenges to go with the weather.

The second week of August brought an onslaught of grasshoppers crossing over onto their vineyard north of Eagle Point.

"No one else seems to have been hit by them," said Mary Gardner. "Our house is up against acres and acres of cattle, so they must have passed through. First they nailed the blackberries, leaving only the stocks."

Then the grasshoppers hit a row of merlot.

"To ripen fruit, you have to have leaves," Gardner said. "They don't touch fruit, they just eat the leaves. All the beautiful fruit is there but can't ripen."

That row of grapes will be dried and made into passito, or straw wine.

The good news for Crater Lake Cellars is the rest of the 18 acres, planted in 2000, fared well with the fruit benefiting from lengthy exposure to the sun.

"We're right on target now," she said, with the expectation of matching last year's 2,000 cases.

Not far away, the Gardners grow grenache grapes at the Wood House Vineyard they have in partnership with Jud Parsons.

The grapes were planted three years ago, near the historic Wood House along Highway 62. The Gardners hope to harvest close to 2 acres of grapes starting on Thursday.

The original Wood House label was gray, she said. After backers rallied support to save the old homestead, the label was changed to a bright blue.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.