While many winemakers started picking fruit 6 weeks ago, that was primarily the Chardonnay and Pinot grapes used to make sparkling wines. They strive for lower sugars and higher acidity for their wines, so they pick earlier than the other varietals. Most of these grapes are found in the Carneros region, at the southern end of the valley. During my 5:30am commute it was eerie to see bright while lights illuminating the normally jet-black acres of landscape as the workers and their machinery picked the grapes before the sun came up, to keep the grapes cool.
As the weeks have passed the harvest has slowly moved up valley. More recently, grapes in our neighborhood were harvested, mostly chardonnay and pinot noir. The activity is noticed at all hours of the day; you see the trucks hauling bins of grapes up and down the valley, you hear the gondolas trundling down the cross streets, you see grape clusters dropped on the roadways that have fallen from the trucks, and you smell fermenting wine in the air. The unbelievably quiet nights we experienced during our first months here are now noisy at all hours, with the sounds of the trucks driving up and down highway 29 in the still of the night.
Even with all the activity, until this week, over 80% of the fruit in the Napa Valley was still on the vine. The cool weather this year has made this one of the latest harvests ever, much to the consternation of the winemakers. The recent rains caused a great deal of anxiety to form locally, because rain at this stage can wreak havoc on grapes, create mold, and slash yields (which are already down due to the early spring rain and the cool growing season.) Some wineries I know have already scrapped acres of fruit, due to not having enough juice in the berries, or because of the rains ten days ago, which means they won’t see as much revenue this year. It could be a scary situation for some small vintners.
Reading the papers, I notice that the growers all put a positive spin on things, saying that”although there is less fruit, the flavors are more concentrated,” that the early rains were “nature’s way of thinning the crop so we didn’t have to do it ourselves,” and other spins which will hopefully allow them to still claim a great product when they release their wine 1-3 years from now.
Anyway, back to the point of my story which is: Harvest started for real this week! The Cabernet makers started picking their grapes yesterday, and Cabernet is King here. Some of the vineyards (particularly in higher elevations) are very ready to pick. Others may not be quite ready yet, but growers fear the next rain storm about ten days from now and want to get the fruit off the vine now. And it does take awhile to get all those grapes off the vines when you are picking by hand, which the higher-end wineries do.
Also, remember that Cabernet is often a blend of grapes. So, the vintners in many cases are picking the Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec red grapes first, and leaving the Cab on the vine for a few more days during this heat wave to let the sugars increase.
I drove up the valley this morning at 6am, in the pitch darkness, to get a sense of the activity. There were lights high up in the hills that one never sees, where fields are lit by floodlights while workers harvest. Traffic was much heavier than normal at this hour on all streets. I stopped and got out of the car, and inhaled deeply: a heady mix of cool air and yeasty wine aromas filled my lungs. It’s a palpable feeling around town; high energy, anticipation, nerves, perspiration, and exhaustion. In addition, the hotels and restaurants are all full with oenophiles who have made the pilgrimage to be here at this time.
My winemaker friends are posting photos and stories on Facebook; the high-profile owners are out cutting grapes at 1am alongside the migrant pickers. It’s all hands on deck, and it’s amazing to experience it as a local. The next two weeks should be really exciting to watch.