Despite Smoke, Vintners Positive in Napa, Sonoma

As vines progress through veraison, reports remain positive about the coming 2018 harvest

by Stacy Briscoe
Trefethen Family Vineyards Pinot Noir grapes started veraison in mid-July in Napa, Calif.

Napa, Calif.—The Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG) announced on July 20 that veraison was underway throughout the valley, and winery newsletters, press releases and Instagram accounts are filled with photos of plumping berries beginning to mature and change color. The countdown to harvest is on.

With that countdown comes a wariness, as fires continue to rage near Redding, Calif., in Mendocino and Lake Counties and the recent smaller fire near Lake Berryessa at Arroyo Grande Drive and Steele Canyon Road in Napa County, which burned about 135 acres, according to CalFire.

Though there are no immediate fire threats to Napa Valley vineyards and CalFire reports the Napa County fire as 96% contained, Jon Ruel, CEO and former viticulturist for Trefethen Family Vineyards, said that some smoke is visible in the sky above the Oak Knoll estate and toward the east.

During veraison, grapes are more susceptible to smoke taint: as the fruit matures, the skin gets softer and compounds called volatile phenols found in fire smoke can easily permeate that supple skin, manipulating the molecular compositions, causing what is known as smoke taint.

“Napa growers predict that the final stages of veraison, on average will be in the next three to four weeks,” said Heidi Soldinger, marketing and communications manager for NVG. “Considering that complete veraison is weeks away and the closest fire, the Steele fire, is currently at 96% containment, we don’t see any cause for concern as it relates to Napa grapes.”

Ruel is of the same opinion and added that none of the fires or resulting smoke are close enough to the Trefethen estate vineyards to make him or his vineyard management team worried about this year’s harvest. “That said, with the devastating fires around Napa and Sonoma Counties last year, we are all certainly on edge,” he said.

When asked about this year’s harvest, Ruel remains happily optimistic. “The 2018 vintage is looking very good!”

Trefethen’s location, which is cooler than up-valley but slightly warmer than Carneros, allows for a broad spectrum of grape varieties, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and several Bordeaux varieties.

Ruel said the vineyard management team monitors and reports all rainfall, temperature and phenology data from the estate vineyards. According to their data, in 2018 the vineyards received just 62% of their average rainfall: 21 inches versus 34 inches. Though the rainy season over the winter and spring was drier than most years, Ruel said for the grapevines, it actually felt quite wet. “The months of March and April were actually much wetter than average,” Ruel said, with rainfall measurements of 7.6 inches and 3.5 inches, respectively. He said these spring showers ensured Trefethen had ample soil moisture as the vines emerged from dormancy.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes saw “typical timing” for bud break in late March, followed shortly thereafter by the Bordeaux varieties in late March, according to Ruel. However, he said the spring temperatures were overall cooler than average, thus growth was slow. “One of the benefits of the slow growth was that it made it easier for our crews to keep up with suckering the vines,” Ruel said.

Ruel said temperatures began to pick up entering June and July, “But not too hot, with 16 days reaching over 90° F and only one day reaching over 100° F.” Ruel said, all of Trefethen’s varieties have now entered veraison, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay further along than the rest.

Ripening just a few days behind normal
But, as for timing, Ruel said that overall the vines are still running a few days behind due to those cool temperatures in April. “It’s only a few days, maybe a week, behind,” he said. “But it feels like much more because the last few vintages were all so early.”

Ruel said right now the vineyard team’s main priority is leafing and thinning, providing a balance of lighting and shading for the individual clusters. In regards to harvest yield predictions, Ruel estimates Trefethen should be “right around target” for each variety. “The Merlot actually looks a bit heavy,” he said, but added that those vines will be thinned aggressively.

Up Valley, Sam Kaplan, winemaker and vineyard manager at Arkenstone Vineyards, has a similar story. “At this point, I’m very optimistic that we’re on track for a great harvest,” he said. Arkenstone’s Howell Mountain estate vineyards are 13 acres of predominantly Bordeaux varieties. According to Kaplan, the estate’s vines just started seeing the first hints of veraison mid-July, starting with the Merlot, Malbec and followed shortly thereafter by Sauvignon Blanc. “The Cabernet is always a bit behind,” he said, but mentioned that there are spots along the northern valley floor near St. Helena where growers’ Cabernet are beginning to show color.

Kaplan said at the beginning of the growing season, due to cooler than average spring temperatures, he thought the vines were tracking about 10 days behind previous vintages, but the recent July heat spike, with days warming to between 80° F and 90° F, have “let the vines catch up.” “We’re expecting a normal start time to harvest,” he said, which, atop Howell Mountain, is usually the first week of September.

And the crop at Arkenstone looks healthy. “It’s not too heavy, not too light, clusters are open but not too huge, which is typically nice for quality,” Kaplan said. He estimates his vines will yield between 2.5 to 3 tons per acre — a low but healthy yield he said is on par with the past few vintages.

“But,” added Kaplan, “I think everyone’s waiting to see how persistent the heat’s going to be.” If another summer heat wave materializes, grape growers could still see an early harvest, with picking beginning as early as mid to late August. “It’s really hard to predict the weather,” Kaplan said.

Conditions favorable in Sonoma County
In Sonoma County, John Olney, COO and winemaker for Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs, said Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley experienced a completely dry February, which lead to concerns about moisture in the soil as the vines entered the growing season. But because of a “few good soakings” in March, those concerns were alleviated — though bud break occurred later than anticipated in early April.

Olney said things have evened out temperature-wise. “There have been a few heat spikes with temperatures over 100,” he said, “but July has been pretty moderate, especially over the last two weeks.”

Ridge farms 210 acres in Dry Creek, most of which is planted to Zinfandel along with interplanted field blends of Petite Sirah, Carignane and Mataro. These late bloomers haven’t quite entered veraison yet. “If you really look hard at the Zinfandel, you can find a berry or two changing color, but veraison won’t be in full swing for another week,” Olney said.

He added he expects that harvest won’t begin in the estate vineyards until Sept. 10.

On the whole, the vines look a lot healthier than previous vintages, according to Olney, who said 2015 and 2017 were particularly low-yielding years. “There are definitely more grapes out there with less shatter across all varieties,” he said.

Olney said that there’s been a lot of steady, periodic wind during the growing season that’s helped limit the occurrence of mildew. And though there have been a few mealy bug sightings, the vineyard team have released predatory wasps to sustainably take care of that issue.

As he looks ahead to harvest, Olney said the fruit looks even more abundant and healthy than last year. “But a lot, favorable or otherwise, can happen in August,” he said. “As long as we don’t get a string of 100-plus degree days leading up to harvest, quality should be very good.”

In Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Nicole Bacigalupi, third generation owner of Bacigalupi Vineyards, said, “All varieties across the board look better than last year.”

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”

Bacigalupi said the weather was quite cool during bloom, contributing to a lot of variation in maturity. She reported about 15% veraison in the Pinot Noir, 10% in the Chardonnay and 1% to 2% in the Zinfandel.

Though Bacigalupi said they’re “right on track with ‘normal’” this year, she noted that there’s been significantly less fog in the Russian River Valley than in past years. “This may make our picking dates slightly earlier than we would have had with a similar temperature year with fog,” she said.

“My memories from childhood are that we would typically start (picking) right before Labor Day weekend, so end of August. However the date has crept up on the calendar, and for the past few vintages it has been mid to early August that we start picking,” Bacigalupi said.

For the family’s estate vineyards, the picking season is a long one, with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah maturing later than the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; harvest typically doesn’t end until the second week of October.

In regards to water, Bacigalupi said that Sonoma County in general received adequate rainfall, specifically in March and April, leaving soil with generous moisture for the growing season.

Regarding harvest predictions, Bacigalupi said the vines’ yields are slightly up from last year in most blocks of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, with estimates of 4 to 5 tons per acre. Chardonnay, she said, is about on par with last year, and is expected to yield about 3 tons per acre.


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