THE 1997 HARVEST is under way in Napa and Sonoma counties and this is still only July. What does that mean we know about this year's crop? Not a lot. Not yet, anyway. . . .
This much we do know. . . .
The 1997 harvest is early, even by Northern California standards, but that shouldn't be a surprise, since the growing season has been mostly rain-free since spring and the weather has been nearly ideal, with warm sunny skies and few days with searing temperatures. . . .
We know that grape tonnage forecasts indicate this year's crop should be above normal, which is welcome news for vintners after a series of below-normal crops and an increased demand for grapes. . . .
It's also good news for us wine drinkers, because small crops between 1990 and 1996 plus heightened demand for our favorite wines has driven up prices for grapes and wines. . . .
WHEN THERE ARE more grapes available, prices usually subside, and there are more wines to choose from. . . .
If all goes well in the next two months, vintners will harvest an excellent crop of grapes, as most varieties had good spring grape setswhen the young berries formand the clusters look healthy. . . .
Now if the weather holdsas it usually doesand the grapes ripen evenly, 1997 could be a wonderful vintage. . . .
The first pickings taking place now are grapes used for sparkling wines. These grapes are typically harvested at higher acidity levels and lower sugar and ripeness levels because sparkling wines go through two major fermentations and need acidity for backbone. . . .
For some wineries, it's a good time to test the equipment, dust off the crusher and make sure all the equipment is greased and ready to run. . . .
AS A CONSUMER, the most important thing to remember is that regardless of what happens during the course of a growing season, the final arbiter of quality is what you taste in the wines. . . .
And while winemakers will begin making their initial quality assessments while they're picking and fermenting their grapes, most of us are a few years away from actually judging quality. . . .
From a grape grower's or winemaker's perspective, getting a healthy grape set, seeing a good crop and harvesting the bounty are reason alone for celebration, which is why vintners are often so enthusiastic once their grapes are off the vines and soaking in fermentation tanks. . . .
NO ONE COULD blame them for sudden flashes of euphoria. . . .
From a business standpoint, a large cropirrespective of qualityis important too, for in the long run all the grapes and wines will eventually be sold, which means profits to the owners. . . .
By most accounts, it will take more than one large crop in 1997 to restore balance to the California wine industry, which has been selling wine about as fast as it could bottle it. . . .
If 1998's harvest is well above normal in tonnage and quality, it would do a lot to stabilize prices too. . . .
In the next few years, there will be many thousands of newly planted acres delivering grapes in the next few years and you even hear whispers of an impending wine glut in the not-so-distant future. . . .
THE WINE BUSINESS is notorious for its feast and famine, boom and bust cycles, so just when things start to look rosy look for a dark cloud on the horizon. . . .
For now, the business is quite healthy and in better financial shape thatat any time since I've been writing about wine, which spans two decades. . . .
So, stay tuned for harvest '97 and root for a great year. . . .
It's always better to drink great wines than boring ones. . . .
Those of you who've suffered through drinking mediocre vintages know all too well what I mean. . . .
A few bottles of earthy, diluted reds or thin, bland whites will quickly give you religion again. . . .
SO PRAY FOR a great harvest, wherever you live and for whatever wines you drink. . . .
You won't be sorry. . . .
James Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine, has written three books on California wine. Check this space every Monday for his views on the latest in the wine world. And if you missed a week, or want to reread a piece, back editions are available in the Column Archive.
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