Now that it’s our second year of living in Napa, I feel like a seasoned veteran when it comes to the subject of harvest (or Harvest, as they reverentially call it around here.) And yes, it started around the 10th of August. However, only a few places are harvesting and crushing grapes right now, and we are 4-6 weeks away from the time when it really gets crazy here. To fully comprehend why there is a staggered harvest, we should start with a little geography lesson.
When I describe the Napa valley to people, I describe it as shaped like a canoe, pointing north and south, with Napa on the bottom and Calistoga on the top. Highway 29 (on the west) and the Silverado Trail (on the east) form the two outer edges (gunwales) of the canoe, and the crossroads that connect the two major thoroughfares are like the yolk or braces of the canoe. (In truth, the Napa valley is shaped a little more like a banana since it curves west as you go north, but the gunwale and yolk analogy still works well, so I stick with it.) The southern end of the canoe is Napa, and it is in close proximity to Vallejo, where the San Francisco Bay pokes in. Along with the bay comes the cool air and fog. This cool air invades the valley most nights during the growing season, and slithers back out in the mornings. However, this cool air hits Napa first, and leaves Napa last, making the southern part of the valley much cooler than Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena or Calistoga, which stay much warmer overall.
Due to this predictable variance in temperatures, the southern part of the valley is planted with grapes that do well in cooler climes, specifically Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The warmer regions (basically Oakville north) are planted predominantly with Cabernet and other hearty grapes. (There are always exceptions to this, but generally this is how things are in the Napa Valley).
If you are a friend of mine, you undoubtedly enjoy yourself some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines on occasion. But those aren’t the only wines made from those grape varietals. California sparkling wines (we never say “Champagne” here) are also made from these grapes, as well as some other blending grapes. These grapes grow primarily in the southern part of the valley, known as the Carneros appellation. And this is where the harvest is taking place right now, for the most part. These grapes take less time to reach maturity, and thrive under cooler temperatures. They reach their desired sugar levels (we all know that sugar becomes alcohol during fermentation, right?) faster, and also, the sparkling wine makers want to retain some acidity in the juice in order to make crisper wines. So, they pick earlier than everyone else.
Now last year, we had such a cool growing season overall that the sparkling wine grapes were not harvested until the very end of August, about three weeks later than this year, and that was the latest anyone could remember. Most Cabernet grapes were left on the vine as long as possible last year just to try to get a few more days of sun (i.e. sugar). As soon as the rains finally threatened in October those grapes were taken down as fast as possible. But yields were way down last year and winemakers produced far fewer cases than normal. In
fact, during the growing season, most vineyards in 2011 ended up “dropping fruit” during the summer (sacrificing some of the crop so that all available growing energy could go into the remaining grapes, this creating fewer sweet, plump clusters) and also did a lot of “canopy trimming” (cutting the leaves back to get more sun on the grapes, which is risky if all of a sudden it gets very hot for several days). In short, last year was a very bad year as far as crop yield went.
This year, however, it looks to be a bonanza. The warm February and March weather created an early bud-break, and the spring rains came at a time when no harm was done to the vines. We have had a much steadier and warmer summer than last year, with consistently warmer temperatures (80’s in Napa, 90’s farther up the valley), with no rain. There has been very little canopy trimming or dropping of fruit, so yields should be up significantly. All of this has the winemakers and grapegrowers very excited about the 2012 vintage.
As I drive around the valley I see wineries stacking the ubiquitous white bins which will soon be full of fruit. Flatbed trucks now carry these bins up and down the highways, and you can usually tell which are laden and which are unladen (and yes, that was an unabashed Monty Python & The Holy Grail reference for my friends.) The Mumm winery, situated in Rutherford on the Silverado Trail, is one of the sparkling wine houses already processing grapes. Their fruit all comes from Carneros, but the winemaking facility and tasting room are on the Silverado Trail, and if you haven’t been, you should stop by. They have tremendous views of the valley below, great tours of the property, and excellent wines. They have a great art collection as well, so you can add a little culture to your bubbles. The folks there were kind enough to let me snap a couple photos today of their crush in progress.
Between now and the end of October there will be a flurry of activity up here as harvest starts in earnest, so I encourage you to make a visit, bring your camera, and take the Silverado Trail as much as possible and only cut over to Highway 29 when you have to. Cheers!