The Harvest Ended in Napa/Sonoma this Weekend

Leaf First things first: No, "Napa Valley" and "Sonoma County" and the "North Coast" can not together nor separately appropriately be described as singular weather zones. Put another way, grapes grown on the valley floor in the Yountville region of Napa and grapes grown near the top of Spring Mountain in Napa Valley are likely to have experienced differing weather conditions throughout the year. The same can be said for Alexander Valley and the Sonoma/Carneros region.

That said, the harvest in Napa Valley and Sonoma County officially ended with the considerable rain the areas received over the weekend. Any grapes left on the vine here with hopes they might hop up a few more brix are probably mush by now.

Yesterday I drove up and down the valley on Highway 29. Along the way I did see some grapes still hanging on the vine and being pelted with rain. Down the Oak Knoll area and just south of Rutherford one could see those poor little berries hanging low, saturated with water.

The 2010 vintage will go down as a very tough year or growers. The story I heard over and over was this one: Earlier on in the season, as cold weather persisted, growers started to see mold inhabit their bunches in a fairly considerable way. Some sprayed others didn't, most likely in order to keep their organic certification. But both organic and non organic growers also followed the tack of pulling leaves to let air flow through. Unfortunately, just as the growers were finished pulling leaves, the area got a spectacular blast of heat…massive heat. Three or four days of it. This in turn, due to the leaves having been pulled, let to lots of sunburn.

The upshot is a smaller crop than normal. In some cases and in some vineyards it will be a considerably smaller crop.

Quality? We'll have to wait and see. What does seem likely is that many grapes will have been picked at lower brix (lower sugars) than normal in many vineyards. This was a year where you really wanted to be growing grapes at a higher elevation where more sunshine was available earlier in the year.

Will this be another 1989, a generally bad year in the North Coast area of California? I can't say. I'm not close enough to enough growers to get a good indication of the quality of the harvest.

But I think what we can say with some assurance is that this won't be a typical "California" year with big, huge, ripe wines across the board. It's tempting to ask if this is a good thing for those who enjoy more balanced, less exuberant wines. But I won't ask this for the simple reason that even if this is such a year, it won't convince most California growers to pursue more balanced wines in the future. Only a call by the tastemakers (critics, sommeliers, retailers and "Super Core" wine drinkers) can make tht happen.

For another, more informed, take on the end of the Harvest, see Jim Barbour's recent blog post.

19 Responses

  1. Greg - October 25, 2010

    How is a smaller crop an upshot? If the crop were reduced by some viticultural practices aimed at improving quality, that could be an upshot. But sunburn and rain damage are not reasons to celebrate a small crop – that is just lost income. Those grapes were lost after the vine already put resources into them. It’s as if the grower picked 6T/acre and threw away 3 to say they picked 3T/acre to get lower yields.
    I’ve reread the two paragraphs surrounding the “Upshot” statement and I still can’t what you are celebrating. Did I miss something?

  2. John Kelly - October 25, 2010

    IF the harvest ends up considerably smaller than historic averages, the upside will potentially be a short-term return to a seller’s market – sometime around 2012-2014. But the usual suspects will unfairly dog the 2010 vintage in the media (after all, the whole vintage in the entire state is defined by Napa Cab, isn’t it?) and we will have a tough time selling even the fewer bottles that get produced.
    But seriously, the vintage ended by 5.5″ of rain? Tom, we are spoiled here in the North Coast. This rain would be considered a minor setback in Oregon or Burgundy. Even here. I recall we got over 10″ of rain before the end of vintage in 1989 and 2000.
    At least I hope so – I have 3 varieties still hanging. Not waiting for a couple more Brix but waiting to get ripe at all. I’ll let you know if they turn to mush before I get them off the vine.

  3. Tom Wark - October 25, 2010

    Not celebrating anything. Imagine the world “Upshot” is replaced by the word “result”.

  4. David Topper - October 25, 2010

    Goosecross Report: Roller coaster of a season for sure. Smaller crop. Had to leave up to 40% for one varietal on the vine due to sunburn (bummer – higher COG – lost income).
    All of our varietals and vineyards were brought in before the rain – not because of the rush before rain – because they were READY for harvest.
    Quality of what we brought in is absolutely superb. Tremendous flavors.
    I fear that John Kelly is right…”the usual suspects will unfairly dog the 2010 vintage in the media” so the roller coaster ride is not over.

  5. Tom Wark - October 25, 2010

    Thanks for the report!! You get fruit not only from the Valley floor but also up on the mountains. Do you concur that this year, mountain grown fruit tended to have an advantage, particularly during the Spring and Early summer?

  6. Wineguider - October 25, 2010

    Great post. Balance – I wish that California winemakers would get this message. Just think if all of that incredible land could be contributing grapes to wines that are natural and real, instead of loaded up with lactic and turbo-oak.

  7. Lisa Mattson, Jordan Winery Vlog - October 25, 2010

    Our last lot of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes arrived at the hopper on Friday just before the rains began. What a crazy, hectic week it was — but Rob Davis honestly believes we have some of the best wines in tank right now he’s ever seen. And this was his 35th vintage. Those wineries who have always produced lower alcohol Cabernet and Merlot were rewarded with intense flavors at low sugars. My heart goes out to the growers in contracts with wineries who wanted uber-ripe, high-sugar fruit and would not let the growers pick last week.
    Harvest is wine country’s biggest party. And indeed, the party is over.
    Journey of Jordan: a wine and food video blog

  8. Mark - October 26, 2010

    Only my 2nd real harvest as part of the wine industry, but even with the early November rains I’d imagine this is about as nervous as winemakers and vineyard owners/employees ever get with a week of wet weather coming around harvest. Should be an interesting year, one which is going to greatly disrupt the current conversation about low versus high alcohol yields, at the end of the day I hope this growing seasons shows all those whom try to make proclamations about what type of wine should be made, that truly only nature can decide.

  9. Mark - October 26, 2010

    Interesting stuff John and I do agree, reports vary from region to region. I can say, portions of the California Central Coast that are accustomed to dealing with October rains and seasonal fog were much more calm about the whole thing than other winemakers we spoke with.
    Are we spoiled? Very much so, but that’s why people have said there are usually no bad vintages in California. (I don’t know if that is actually true or not, but I do agree that ripeness will likely never be a problem)

  10. Andrew Schweiger, - October 26, 2010

    I just finished picking Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon this afternoon. Definitely NOT MUSH! Great fruit flavors. I am on top of the Spring Mountain District…very thick skin on all my red varietals. While it has been a challenging harvest, the flavors have been exceptional. The soaking of rain, followed by the moderate temperatures yesterday and today have really started to push the “on the bubble” grapes over the edge. I am still optimistic about the last that I will bring in…after the coming inch this weekend.

  11. Sheldon Richards - October 26, 2010

    I agree with Andy. Our fruit is fine, despite the rain. Yes, it was an unusual year. But from the top of Spring Mountain, we watched as the usual morning fog on the valley floor hung until noon or 1:00 when it usually burns off by 9-10:00. Yes we had some sunburn and raisining, but we field sorted that and still have a bumper crop. While the brix are slightly low for us, they are still 25.5 – 28,5, so I have no complaints. With the warm sun and mountaintop breezes, my fruit is dry and happy. We’ll wait to pick the final third after this next rain. I look forward to another great vintage–at least here on the hilltops.

  12. [email protected] - October 26, 2010

    Honestly, I am very disappointed to see people speak without knowledge. If you live in wine country, you know harvest beyond the stereotypes. HARVEST IS NOT OVER OR RUINED!!! There is plenty of fruit out there and much of it will be just fine. The farmers/grapegrowers know what they are doing and many varieties can withstand the elements. Unfortunately, our industry has more difficulty withstanding the “poor elements” (i.e. negative press) than our grapes. Speaking poorly of 2010 will only reflect negatively upon the vintage and our valley.
    Mike – Yountville

  13. JohnLopresti - October 27, 2010

    In northern Alexander Valley on Sunday October 21, 2010 according to the local press, there was rain that day in Napa; however, Sonoma county’s Alexander Valley AVA and the ridges tilted toward Yorkville Highlands AVA had no rain.
    Then again, there is always the brandy option for late fruit, though perhaps less of an avenue than historically in the northcoast.

  14. David Topper - October 27, 2010

    Tom –
    In our particular vineyard, the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon fruit (with southern exposure and with little morning overcast) was basically a normal growing pattern.
    The two heat waves did most of its damage in our vineyard on the Howell Mountain Petite Syrah. The bigger berry fruit appeared to have the most damage due to internal heat of the grapes.
    Your statement cannot be true on the west/east facing part of the valley… with the many days of overcast, cooler weather and shorter sunlight exposer. But then, those that grow over there should be quoted over me.
    Hope that answered your question.

  15. Douglas (Watkins) - October 27, 2010

    I hope it will be a good year for the California wine industry, but it doesn’t look like it.

  16. bunt marker - October 28, 2010

    As you say, time will tell. But i for one wouldn’t want to repeat this fabulous vintage the Spring Mtn guys are touting. i like low sugars (alcohol) and balanced wine, i don’t have a marketing department on my back, and i say this vintage SUCKS. No doubt, some nice wines will be made, maybe even a couple of mine, but this vintage SUCKS. Did I mention this vintage SUCKS? No one ever wants to admit the King wears no clothes, but in 2010 he’s buck naked. The Sauvignon blanc might be OK. Otherwise, another great reason to drink French wine. And i’m no pussy- i made wine on the east coast for a coupla lousy years there. So I knows it when I sees it. this vintage SUCKS. Thank you, global warming. Prop 23, anyone? Thank god for beer and scotch- I may survive. mark

  17. Morton - October 29, 2010

    bunt or blunt? I wish I lived in a world as simple as yours. If you like low alcohol wines then this might be your vintage. The guys that like to let their grapes raisin had a tough time this year. Regarding your French wine recommendation… they are used to getting 15 to 20 inches of rainfall during the growing season and California only got about 5 inches. So, maybe if we get another 10 or so you’ll like the vintage.
    One thing I know, the vintage didn’t suck. I look forward to bright varietal flavors for a change. A little break from the pruney, alcoholic monsters that are so in fashion. There will be some great Pinots and Merlots, and some tangy Cabs from 2010. And whites? A great year for Chardonnay. A critic worth his or her salt will help the consumer finds these jewels.
    In general, California grape growers and winemakers are complainers. They are never happy. The crop is too big or it is too small, the year is too cool or too hot; it is too wet or it is too dry. Growers complain when prices are too low, winemakers when too they’re high. Despite the hand wringing, we have a lot of great wine made every year. I have lovely red wines in my cellar from 1975, 1982, 1989, 1998 and 2000. I guess the vines don’t necessarily listen to the naysayers.

  18. Tom Wark - October 29, 2010

    You make a great point about Pinot, Chard and Merlot. This could be a FANTASTIC year for early ripening varieties. The key will be for the media to make the distinction when it lays down the law in its 2010 reports.

  19. Randy Pitts - October 29, 2010

    This vintage was challenging but it certainly didn’t “suck” as one of your guests so eloquently described. The description you laid out Tom was exactly what I experienced in the vineyards.
    1) 5″ of rain in May and June when I normally receive less than 1″.
    2) We enjoyed the coldest weather summer pattern in 39 years.
    3) Pull leaves on the afternoon side in order to allow the inner canopy to dry out. (when I should have sprayed more sulfur instead)
    4) 106 degrees on a Tuesday and 103 the day after. Major sunburn on the varieties that were not far along in versaion like Zin which was down about 60%. from average.
    5) Rain on that Sunday in September (about 3/4″) and the season slowly drizzled out from there.
    HOWEVER, this may be the year where California Winemakers are forced to craft elegant wines. With relatively lower suagrs and high acid (esp malic), this is a vintage that will go down in history as a keeper vintage. I expect the wines in barrel and fermentors to age magnificently, they’ll age for decades and will pair extremely well with nightly dinner. Just from what I’ve been sampling from post ml wines… JUICY. This will be a test for the # monkeys and their respective handlers alike. Do they poo poo it because it’s to “thin” or “lean”, too tart? Not enough glycerine for Parker?
    Bunt, you seem to be confused. If you like to make and drink low alc wines, then this year should be right up your alley. The sugars rose super slowly allowing the flavors to also slowly leech into the grapes offering ultimately much more complexity both aromatically and flavor. Moreover, when one enjoys lower alc wines, one typically likes higher natural acids in those wines and this is the year for acid freaks like myself.
    Till then, I shall basque in the happiness of rains’ arrival and look forward to drinking some seriously tasty 2010 in 1/2 a decade.

Leave a Reply