After Hectic Start, Napa Winemakers Now Wait to Harvest

Many relieved to let grapes enjoy some hang time after extreme heat and rain

by Andrew Adams
wine grapes napa harvest heat wave
General manager Tiffany Kenny and part owner Beta Hyde (right) help sort Pinot Noir clusters at the new Hyde Estate Winery in the Carneros AVA. Credit: Rebecca Arnn

Napa, Calif.—The vintage that has been described as a “roller coaster” has now returned largely to normal across the North Coast, including Napa County.

“If you had asked me a week ago, I would have been biting my nails,” said Steve Matthiasson, a Napa-based vineyard consultant who also makes about 2,500 cases of his own wine through Matthiasson Family Vineyards.

He said the weather this year has been crazy with an August heatwave followed by even hotter one that occurred during Labor Day weekend. The heat was followed by humid and muggy conditions, and Brix levels had shot up to 22° or 23.5° before retreating 2° Brix. “It was very unusual: The Brix went back down big time,” he said.

Then ripening halted, and Matthiasson said he began to get worried until the return of weather more typical for Napa Valley in late September. With the long-range forecast calling for slightly warmer temperatures and no rain, Matthiasson said what had seemed crazy is now turning promising. “I’m thinking it’s amazing, because we’re getting hang time and the fruit is in great condition,” he said.

Varied weather through spring bloom also resulted in some wide discrepancies in yields. “Other than the fact the weather has been a roller coaster, the yields have been a roller coaster,” Matthiasson said.

Chardonnay suffered a little shatter and is down slightly. Merlot is way down, but Cabernet Sauvignon is doing quite well. Matthiasson said he suspects some Cab vineyards experienced some shatter, but his did quite well, set heavy and he’s looking at harvesting 5.5 tons to the acre.

Matthiasson said most of his clients producing ultra-premium wines have been able to pay competitive wages to secure workers. For other, smaller wineries, setting pick dates even in Napa County has been a challenge because of high demand on a smaller pool of available labor.

Winemakers report high acid levels
Plata Wine Partners director of winemaking Alison Crowe said as she’s checked on vineyards: Seeds are brown, and tannins appear to be developing faster than sugar. She’s hopeful Cabernet Sauvignon will hit full flavor at lower Brix. Crowe said she expected to start picking Pope Valley Merlot by Sept. 26 or 27, and to be picking Cabernet through mid- to late October, which is normal. “Most Carneros Pinot Noir is off the vine, and we are more than halfway through Chardonnay,” she said.  “What I’ve brought in has been tasty and clean with no Botrytis.” 

She said she’s seen some unusual chemistries such as 23° Brix with a pH of 3.75. “This is where I do think they heat wave had some impact, as it seems a lot more acid respired out of grapes while the sugars just didn’t catch up,” Crowe said. “Luckily, we had little loss overall during the heat spike, because water tables were naturally higher in most vineyards and the subsequent green leafy canopies sheltered the clusters from the worst of the sun.”

Because Brix and acid levels aren’t exactly conforming to what’s normal, she said it’s been even more important this year to set pick dates based on taste and how the vines look. “You might find you really get optimal balance in what you’re looking for at a lower Brix this year—especially since acids have been dropping out early and, in many cases, seeds are getting brown earlier than expected.”

On Sept. 21, Alan Viader, director of operations and winemaking for 4,000-case Viader Vineyards & Winery, told Wines & Vines he had started picking Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec off of the estate in the Howell Mountain AVA. “This year will be more of a ‘hurry up and wait’ scenario, I think. The vines look strong and healthy, and the weather is ideal for longer hang time,” he said. “We have been very stable in the numbers, too, so no reason to rush anything yet. Most blocks are sitting around 23° Brix on average, and with the current forecast, I should be harvesting most of the property over the next two to three weeks. Flavors are really building up fast now, and things are tasting great.

Jacky Young, winemaker and part-owner of St. Helena, Calif.-based Young Inglewood Vineyards, which produces around 700 cases, said harvest began in early August with white grapes and red grapes destined for rosé wines. She said shade cloths helped tremendously during the heat waves, and with the return of more normal weather the rest of the estate’s reds and Cabernet Sauvignon will be picked in the next two to three weeks at about 3 tons per acre. “From record-breaking summer heat to cool temperatures and drizzle, this year’s growing season has had its share of challenges,” she said. “We’re thankful the extremes haven’t detracted from the fine quality we’re seeing in our fruit.”

In early August, the Hyde family—owners of Hyde Vineyards in the Carneros AVA—opened a new winery in time for harvest for their eponymous wine brand that produces about 1,000 cases per year.

Speaking to Wines & Vines in early September, managing partner Chris Hyde said the harvest for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were about done. He said Pinot yields had remained average but the Chardonnay was coming in slightly below average to as much as 40% down for some vineyards of the Wente clone, because the smaller berries of the clusters fell victim to desiccation. “We have a couple blocks of Chard left that seemed to have been shocked by the heat, and the ripening has been set back. The canopy looks a bit tired now, and the sugars shot up while acids remained high in lots of varieties, which will make wine production tricky in the cellar,” he said. “We look forward to what looks like promising yields in the late-season red varieties: Merlot, Cab and Syrah.”

Tom Eddy, winemaker and owner of Tom Eddy Winery, which makes 5,000 cases per year in Calistoga, Calif., said it’s not just picking crews that are scarce. Workers for mobile bottling rigs aren’t showing up as well. He said most of the operators he talked to this summer are asking staffing agencies for two to three times the numbers of workers they need with the expectation most won’t show up.

He’s heard from workers who are worried about federal immigration policies and others that are taking advantage of the market to find the best hourly rate. He also suspects some of the younger generation aren’t particularly interested in the work of harvest.

On Sept. 15, Eddy brought in about 7 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards in Pritchard Hill and on the valley floor near Calistoga. He said he’d been irrigating before the most recent heat spike, and the grapes looked OK, but he’s seen several vineyards that had been badly damaged due to lack of water before the hot weather or row orientation.

“A lot of people got hurt during that heat wave,” Eddy said. “In my 45 years, I don’t ever remember that much heat accumulation that fast.”

Despite the challenges from the heat, Eddy said yields are generally good—especially after the lower than normal vintage last year. He works with vineyards throughout Napa Valley and in Sonoma County and said vineyards that were putting out about 2.5 tons to the acre last year are back to normal at around 3.5 tons per acre.

While the rain and humidity after the heat was unusual, Eddy said from what he’s seen, it does not appear to have caused much rot in Napa Valley Cabernet. He also had just checked on some Chardonnay in the Russian River Valley and said those grapes were clean too. “That was just really bizarre,” Eddy said of the weather. “We were bottling that week when the rain came on Thursday, and we had to shut the line down because the humidity was so high the labels wouldn’t stick.”

He said he hoped the challenges of 2017 were done, and based on the long-range forecast looked forward to a typical California fall to allow the rest of harvest to proceed unrushed. “From what I’m seeing of the weather, it’s going to really cool down and become a normal fall.”

Prediction: California comes up short

Jeff Bitter, vice president of operations for the Allied Grape Growers, said from what he’s seen and heard he is now expecting California’s total wine grape crop will be less than the expected average of 4.2 million tons. When he was speaking to Wines & Vines in mid-September he said it was still early but it’s likely 2017 will be a shorter than normal year. “It’s possible we could be down 10% overall, and something as low as 3.6 (million tons) is in the cards.”

But despite the heat, sugar accumulation (even in the interior valleys) has been slow. And with moderate, cooler weather in the immediate forecast, the rest of California’s red grapes may have sufficient time to get back into balance for a more “normal” harvest through October.

Bitter added that labor has been an issue “without a doubt,” but the challenge appeared manageable for companies with enough year-round work to retain workers and for those that planned well in advance. Trying to schedule picks on short notice was much more of a challenge.

Posted on 09.26.2017 - 10:45:26 PST
Never heard of Brix going down, especially when the weather is so dry and hot, except if the vines were heavily watered. I dry farm my Pinot Noir in the Lamorinda AVA (Moraga), but last week when the Brix hit 26+ I watered for for 6 hours (3 Gallons/plant) 2 days before harvest, managed to get only 1/2 degree down. I believe the dry weather prevented the lowering of the Brix, otherwise, I would have expected at least 1 Degree reduction. Any comments from experimentalists out there would be appreciated. Sal Captain, Captain Vineyards.