2018 Could be 'One for the Record Books'

Napa and Sonoma grapegrowers report extended hang time and steady picking pace, yielding healthy and "happy" grapes

by Stacy Briscoe
Chardonnay harvest in "Katie's Acre" at Trefethen Family Vineyards

Napa, Calif.—Napa Valley began its countdown to harvest mid-July when the Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG) announced that veraison was officially underway. But one didn’t have to count down very far, as just one month later those winery newsletters, press releases and Instagram accounts riddled with photos of color-changing buds, quickly changed to those of fully-plumped grapes, midnight picking and the all-too appetizing imagery of those grapes macerating in their own jammy juices.

“A very even bloom was followed by a rapid veraison this year and to date our ripening period has been void of extreme heat which will allow for some extended hang time and great phenolic maturity in the fruit,” said Paul Goldberg, director of operations at Bettinelli Vineyards and president of the NVG, in a recent statement. He said that the 2018 growing season has been marked with steady, moderate weather patterns that mean uniformity in ripeness for grapes across the valley.

And this proved to be true when speaking to winemakers in both Napa and Sonoma counties.

Trefethen Family Vineyards, located in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley, is home to a broad spectrum of grape varieties, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and several Bordeaux varieties.

Back in July, John Ruel, CEO and former viticulturist for Trefethen Family Vineyards, was quite optimistic about the 2018 harvest. Because of steady rainfall that spread throughout the growing season in March and April, Ruel said the vines had ample soil moisture during budbreak. All grape varieties entered veraison by mid-July when temperatures spiked slightly over 90°F for a few days. But with no major heat spells, Ruel said the grapes continued to grow at a steady pace.

In fact, Ruel said late August and all of September was cooler than average, which slowed the ripening process, providing longer hang time and allowing for the grapes to develop more flavor. “We kicked off the harvest on Aug. 21 with Pinot Noir for our rosé,” he said. “The other early varieties soon followed, including our Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay.”

With Bordeaux red varieties, Ruel said Cabernet Franc was the first ready for harvest. “We brought a few tons in on Sept. 14 and completed the variety just a week later, on Sept. 21,” he said.

Entering October, Ruel said Trefethen is “almost done with Merlot,” but is just getting started with Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. He expects they’ll wrap-up completely with harvest around mid-October, “Which is pretty ‘normal’ timing for us,” he said.

As far as grape quality, Ruel said it’s “great across the board,” with everything coming in in “pristine condition.” He also said that quantity is above average in most blocks, but mostly due to how large the clusters are, not because there’s more of them.

And despite the fires that swept across northern California this year, Ruel said there’s been no issues with fire, smoke or debris in the vineyards. “Thankful for that,” he said.

Up valley, Sam Kaplan, winemaker and vineyard manager at Arkenstone Vineyards tells a very similar story. “The weather has been perfect — consistently warm, allowing for complete fruit development. With these ideal conditions, we’ve been able to space out our picks and steadily bring in fruit,” said Kaplan.

Arkenstone’s Howell Mountain estate vineyards is home to 13 acres of predominantly Bordeaux varieties. As of this first week of October, Kaplan said all the whites (Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc) have been picked and the Cabernet Sauvignon is “swiftly coming in.”

Unlike Ruel, back in July, Kaplan said the estate’s fruit was just starting to see the first hints of veraison, starting with Merlot and Malbec, followed shortly thereafter by Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, Kaplan initially assessed his vines to be about 10 days behind previous vintages, but the heat spikes in July allowed the vines to “catch up.”

And so they did. “Timing-wise, we’re pretty much on track with what we suspected,” said Kaplan whose white varieties started coming in the first week of September. “A few things are a little later, but not by much,” he said.

“With the ideal conditions throughout the growing season, we suspected high fruit quality, which is the case now at harvest,” Kaplan. “Overall, the 2018 fruit is displaying bright acids and complex flavors.”

Sonoma County
Tim Bell, winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg, Calif., said his crews have already brought in all of their Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, and most of the Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. “We’re still working on getting the last of those two varieties in this week,” he said.

Bell said that the rain this past Monday, Oct. 1, did cause some concern. “Mainly around the thinner-skinned variety, Zinfandel, developing some mold or rot,” Bell said. But Tuesday and Wednesday proved to be less humid, and he said remaining Zinfandel blocks are coming in this week, so he doesn’t foresee those issues having a chance to develop. For extra insurance, Bell said his harvest crews will be using sorting tables in the vineyards to remove any affected bunches.

“We’ll be diligently making our rounds of all vineyards, but I don’t expect to see much issues with the tougher Bordeaux-style red grape varieties,” Bell said. Dry Creek Vineyard has only just begun harvest of its Merlot, and has Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon “scheduled to start soon.” Bell expects to have harvest completed between Oct. 20 and Oct. 24.

So far, Bell said that quantity has been up this year because of the more moderate weather. “A lack of significant heat events has led to less water demands by the vines and less dehydration,” he said. But, he added, some of the cooler weather patterns also seemed to affect certain vineyards, and Dry Creek Vineyard has experienced some Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel lots with lower than average-sized crop.

Yet, despite the lack of heat, Bell said a few lots of early-ripening Zinfandel “still wanted to dehydrate,” and he and his vineyard management team had to keep a close eye on those grapes throughout the growing season. “I had one grower blame it on the northerly winds we experienced in September,” he said.

Earlier in the year, Dry Creek Vineyard experienced a few instances of esca, also called measles, in some of its Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, which can inhibit maturation. “It required sending crews into affected vineyards for thinning to remove affected clusters before harvest,” Bell said.

Bell also saw some waterberry affecting certain Petite Sirah vineyards. Again, crews were sent out to thin those vines. “I feared we might have lower yields overall in some vineyards, but that hasn’t been the case,” he said. In fact, as a result of the attentive pruning and the cooler season, Dry Creek Vineyard's Petite Sirah experienced longer hang time, giving it a chance to mature more completely than in years past.

Bell said quality, especially for white varieties, has been excellent. “I have been picking up a bit more gooseberry-type aromas in our Sauvignon Blanc ferments this year, and I like having that quality,” he said.

When asked about red varieties, Bell said the Zinfandel that’s been harvested and is currently settling in tank is already emitting bright cherry aromas, spice notes and deep coloring. The first lots of Petite Sirah and Merlot are also showing some “unusually deep color and richness.” “Because of the cooler overall weather during ripening, we’ve seen good acids in the reds,” he said. “And overall, we’ve ended up with good quality and quantity."

In Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Nicole Bacigalupi, third generation owner of Bacigalupi Vineyards, said her family is nearly done with harvest. The family’s estate vineyards, located on Westside Road where they also own and operate their winery and tasting room, are planted to 121 acres of predominantly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

After picking the last of their Wente clone selection Chardonnay and clone 668 Pinot Noir for a Napa Valley winery last Friday, Sept. 28, the Bacigalupis have completed their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay harvests for 2018. Over the weekend of Sept. 29, they then started harvest of their Zinfandel, and Bacigalupi expects the Petite Sirah to be ready by the second week of October.

Timing, said Bacigalupi, was a little late this year, especially compared to the 2014, 2015 and 2016 “drought vintgages.” “The cool temperatures made for a slow but steady start to picking,” said Bacigalupi, explaining that the Sept. 4 start day for harvest was about two weeks later than the last few years. “But with the very cool harvest season, we were able to really allow each block to ripen on its own and pick at the very best time for each block and each variety,” she said. Allowing the fruit the additional hang time increased the overall quality of the vintage, in Bacigalupi’s opinion.

Due to the very balanced weather during fruit set and bloom, Bacigalupi said that the vines were able to ripen evenly. “We did not have to do much of a green drop to even out the vines because they were all naturally even,” she said. “The vines were also very balanced this year with extremely healthy canopies, so we were able to get great flavors in all of our blocks.”

It’s not just fruit quality but fruit quantity that has increased this year for the Russian River-based vineyard and winery. Bacigalupi said that over the past few years, the vines have struggled with the drought, so harvest yields have been slightly lower on average. “I think with the past few years of drought, the vines have had restricted growth, needing to conserve energy, nutrients and water,” Bacigalupi said. But, now that the water tables are filled, she said the vines are “happy” and “really showing what they can do.”

“Walking the vineyards, it’s very apparent the vines are happy and healthy. They have carried an amazing crop all season long. I believe this to be a vintage for the record books.”

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