Traditionally, September and October are when the Napa Valley grape harvest is in full swing. The Valley comes alive during that time; the roads choked with trucks hauling tons of grapes in those ubiquitous white bins. The air is ripe with the smell of fermenting grapes, and wine club members fill the hotels and restaurants as they gather to attend one of the countless winery release parties and harvest events. It’s a heady time, to be sure, for both locals and visitors. But this year, the tourists who arrive from mid-September on may find they missed the party.
Harvest has come early this year. Way early.
Thanks to Mother Nature, the normal harvest schedules have been accelerated by about a month. While some pundits and newspaper reporters have attributed this to the ongoing drought, others, including winemaker Cathy Corison, argue that is not exactly the case. While California is indeed in the throes of a four-year drought, the Napa Valley actually received plenty of rain last winter, although in just a few concentrated storms. The true problem was that the month of January was rain-free and warmer than usual, which meant the vines started growing earlier than normal. Since bud break happened a month early, it makes perfect sense that harvest has to also happen a month earlier than expected. It wasn’t just a lack of rainfall, per se.
A typical harvest season starts quietly in August. During that month, sparkling wine grapes are harvested by the few wineries that make bubbles. Meanwhile, at all the other wineries, workers spend the month bottling the previous vintage’s wines and shipping them off to storage. Then they spend many hours cleaning and prepping the newly-emptied barrels and tanks for re-use when the grapes are harvested in September. New barrels (“new oak”) are also delivered during August, and also have to be prepped to receive juice. Come September, most of the cooler grape types (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and others) start coming in to the winery. Most Cabernet grapes will normally hang until October. So there is a nice, easy controlled rhythm in the valley from August through October.
But this year is different. And for some wineries, this accelerated timetable has created some chaotic conditions on the crush pad.
The early harvest saw sparkling grapes being processed as early as July 22nd, the earliest date on record. The wineries that normally harvest in early September began to realize that things would be happening earlier than usual, and that presented timing challenges. Rather than bottling a month before harvest, this year’s accelerated schedule meant that wineries would be bottling, cleaning and harvesting almost simultaneously.
A visit to White Rock Vineyards in Napa last week revealed that they were bottling last year’s wines, cleaning out the old barrels, accepting a new shipment of barrels and processing some early Chardonnay fruit on the same day. Over in Sonoma and up in Santa Rosa, respectively, Patz & Hall and Pisoni wineries were alternating days of bottling and cleaning with days of processing newly-picked grapes. For wineries with small staffs, this can create even more stress and longer hours than usual during the time-sensitive harvest period.
While some Cabernet grapes are coming off the vines now, most will be harvested in September, assuming the weather stays cooperative. Yields will be lower than in the past three years, owing to cool growing conditions early in the season which resulted in uneven flowering and fruit set. Due to this, most vineyards dropped a lot of fruit early to allow the remaining clusters to ripen fully. Also, after the last three vintages which yielded more tonnage than normal, many vintners have chosen to not over-tax their vines for a fourth straight year and will be happy with a smaller but nicely-concentrated crop.
So while the Napa Valley is busy with activity now, one can expect things to really be in full swing in early September when the Cabernet grapes start rolling in. The silver lining to all this may be, for this year anyway, that the vintners will be able to relax and enjoy the harvest parties with their wine club members in October.