A sure sign of autumn in the Santa Ynez Valley is the return of the tarantulas. This is the time of year — the warmest days in our region — that the arachnids are leaving hillside nests in search of mates.

While the hairy beasts strike fear in many, they are harmless and earn their keep by eating small frogs and insects.

The tarantulas love the warm days, but temperatures are starting to dip overnight, and the mornings are cool. Winemakers and picking crews rising well before dawn to monitor grapes’ brix, pH and acid levels pre-harvest — or to pick if they deem the “numbers” optimal — don sweatshirts and gloves to ward off fall’s early-morning chill.

Harvest translates into 12- or 15-hour days, being covered in sticky juice from a million crushed grapes and often discovering more than you’ve bargained (or paid) for inside bins in the form of spiders, bees and wasps who also like grape juice and tagged along for the ride.

Should you pass a truck or flatbread trailer laden with bins full of freshly picked grapes, salute the harvest of 2012.

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While harvest season remains young, early reports are describing the current vintage as a bountiful crop.

The statewide wine grape yield is expected to reach 3.7 million tons, according to Allied Grape Growers, a growers association in Fresno, quoted Sept. 19 in www.winebusiness.com.

This figure would tie the second-largest crop ever, and would be very welcome after 2010 and 2011, back-to-back smaller-than-average harvests, the article noted.

Allied Grape Growers consider 3.5 million tons an average harvest, according to www.winebusiness.com.

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It’s almost last call for the annual Celebration of Harvest festival Saturday, Oct. 13, at Rancho Sisquoc Winery, and it’s best to secure advance tickets, as the event traditionally sells out.

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The Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association’s fall celebration of wine has evolved into a culinary delight that showcases locally grown produce, beef and seafood. Attendees can nibble edibles from chefs hailing from the region’s top restaurants, among them the Ballard Inn, Bacara Inn & Resort and Hitching Post Restaurant, as well as caterers.

Tickets are available via the SBCVA: www.sbcountywines.com, and by phone at 888-330-6744.

Part of the Celebration of Harvest weekend is the SBCVA’s Vintners’ Visa, a multi-day passport to a choice of 12 of the approximately 35 wineries and

tasting rooms that offer special tastings for one price. Visit www.sb county wines.com for up-to-the-minute information on participating wineries and tasting rooms.

Festival details: 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 13, at Rancho Sisquoc Winery, Foxen Canyon Road. Parking available. Tickets: $65 advance, and $75 at door (if available); Vintners’ Visa: $35; Designated Driver: $25; Advance VIP tickets to festival, noon entry, $90 (wine only; food served beginning at 1 p.m.).

Combination festival and Vintners’ Visa tickets are $90, and the trifecta — festival, Vint-ners’ Visa and early entry tickets — $115.

Freelance writer Laurie Jervis can be reached at winecountrywriter@gmail.com. Her blog is www.centralcoastwinepress.com.

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