Napa Wraps Up Earliest Harvest in Years

County's last wine grapes should come in during the next week

by Paul Franson
Winemaker Matt Reid (left) and Remi Cohen (right) listen to viticulturist PJ Alviso discuss the 2015 growing season and harvest at an event hosted by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers on Thursday in Yountville.

Yountville, Calif.—For the first time in memory, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers held its annual harvest update as harvest ended, not weeks in advance.

This year was the earliest harvest on record, and most local grapegrowers will finish up this week or next.

“It feels like the end of October, not its start,” said PJ Alviso, director of estate viticulture for Duckhorn Wine Co. in St. Helena, Calif., and one of the speakers at the conference.

In addition to being early, the harvest was a bit light, perhaps 10% to 20% off “average” but 30% to 40% under the bountiful yields of the past three years, according to Remi Cohen, vice president and general manager of Lede Family Wines in Yountville, where the conference was held.

The meeting was moderated by Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and the panel also included winemaker Matt Reid of Benessere Vineyards and Estate Winery in St. Helena.

The event was streamed live, as it had been for the past few years, when it has attracted almost 10,000 viewers on various wine-oriented Internet services.

Cohen described how a warm, dry winter brought on bud break about two weeks early, and May and June were cool, causing vines to slow development. “Once July hit, it got very hot, leading to one of the warmest seasons on record” and the early harvest.

“The vines were confused,” explained Alviso anthropomorphically. “This led to some shatter and uneven ripening.”

He added that harvest time depended on when the vines had been pruned and the consequent timing of bud break. “A day in Carneros isn’t a day in Calistoga. Howell Mountain was so far behind, in fact, that it wasn’t affected by the hot weather in July.”

Yields and quality
The lower yields are a mixed blessing to the industry after three big years that have left most wineries with excess inventory. The smaller yields could help reduce the supply and firm up some prices, but growers paid by the ton for their crops will see less income.

Fortunately everyone—including the speakers—agree that quality was high. “We see nice concentration, but the grapes have retained their acidity,” Cohen said. She finished most of her harvest a week ago, with only some Petite Verdot left to be picked next week.

Alviso, a vineyardist proclaimed, “We’re done!” But the winemakers on the panel still have weeks of work ahead while completing fermentation.

Reid ended harvest Aug. 25, and his first red wines are now in barrel. He added that the grapes showed “beautiful acidity to match the bright fruit flavors and fine tannins.”

Cohen noted, however, that the light crop meant a shortage of some Napa grapes. “The grapes weren’t out there,” Reid agreed. “People who waited to buy on the spot market were out of luck.”

Drought concerns

Of course, water is on everyone’s mind as California ends the fourth year of a record drought. “Fortunately, it rained at the right times,” Cohen said. “It filled our reservoirs and helped develop healthy canopies.”

Like the other growers, she uses sophisticated technology to monitor water, including Fruition Sciences instruments that monitor sap flow. “We can tell when the vines need water,” she claimed. “We only irrigate when needed.”

Alviso added, “Our inclination is to irrigate, but the instrumentation suggests that vines may not need as much water as we’ve been giving them.”

Still, the growers are taking steps to deal with future water shortages. “We know that long-term, we won’t have as much water as we want,” Reid said.

Among the steps they’re taking to deal with future water shortages are planting with drought-resistant rootstocks, adjusting spacing and using drought-resistant cover crops as well as the monitoring technology.

Another technology that helps save water is drones, “They’re a tool as well as a toy,” said Putnam, and Alviso said that they let growers look at vineyards with infrared cameras that tell which vines are stressed. “Then we can concentrate water where it’s needed.”

After the drought, scientists are now predicting a strong El Niño system in the Pacific Ocean, which should bring heavy rains to California.

Cohen noted that scientists say the rain will fill reservoirs but won’t end the drought.

Reid added, “We also expect a warm winter. That’s bad for the snowpack but reduces the likelihood of freezes. Many growers use overhead sprinkling to fight frost, so warm weather could save water.”

Napa Valley is in a different situation than much of California, in fact. “Hydrologically, Napa is disconnected from the rest of California,” Alviso said. “We’ve seen no drop in our water table.”

He added, however, “Still, bring on the rain!”

Fortunately, the terrible fires that struck Lake County to the north didn’t impact Napa vineyards and only had a small impact on the grapes from Lake County, a relatively small growing area.

Labor is always an issue for all farmers, but Putnam noted that the average starting wage for an entry-level farm laborer in Napa County is $14, well about minimum wage and typical farm wages. Much of the workforce is permanent and receives good benefits, too.

“At Duckhorn, the fieldworkers get the same benefits as the president,” claimed Alviso. He added, “They’re not doing typical field work anyway. They’re artisans. They perform the pruning and other tasks faster and better than I can!”

In sum, this has been a compressed but productive year for Napa Valley grapegrowers. Though yields are down, quality is high—and drought and wildfires haven’t impacted the crop.” Cohen concluded, “It's a good time to buy Napa wine!”

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