The 2001 growing season in California has been a roller-coaster ride, but the state's winemakers look poised to have an early, potentially excellent harvest with modest yields of clean, healthy grapes. If ripening continues at a steady pace, most estates should finish picking a week or so ahead of schedule.
Logistics might post the biggest problems this year as wineries anticipate a hectic harvest, with a number of young new vineyards coming into production for the first time, which mean their crops are light and ripen quickly. In addition, in established vineyards, several different varieties look to be ripening simultaneously; in Napa and Paso Robles, for example, estates expect some Merlot vineyards to come in at the same time as Chardonnay.
Sparkling-wine producers started crush with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in the first two weeks of August, with some producers noting reduced Chardonnay crops due to the severe frost that struck the North Coast in April.
Eileen Crane, winemaker at Domaine Carneros, is particularly pleased with the Chardonnay and believes that the high acids will yield crisp wines that age well. To my experience, these have been some of the most ideal ripening conditions for sparkling wines I've ever seen, she said of the recent weather. It's not so cool it stalls, and not so warm the sugars climb ahead of the flavors.
While most of August was mild, weather fluctuations earlier in the year kept growers on their toes. Budbreak occurred about 10 days earlier than normal this spring, but in the beginning of April, temperatures plummeted as the North Coast suffered its worst frost in 30 years. The frost reduced crop size at various sites, and vineyards with smaller yields tend to ripen more quickly. Vine growth accelerated during an unusually warm May and June, but slowed when conditions turned cool in July.
But all the ups and downs seem to have balanced out. The coolness [in July and August] helped us tremendously. We're seeing good acidity and haven't had to make adjustments, said Mark Beringer, winemaker at Duckhorn Vineyards in Napa Valley, which started harvest in the third week of August with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon from warmer vineyard sites.
In Sonoma Valley, Arrowood Vineyards & Winery started picking on Aug. 27, with Russian River Chardonnay and Merlot from its Glen Ellen estate. Yields there look fairly small, though it's too early to tell with late-ripeners such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which still probably need at least another month on the vine.
Seghesio Winery in Healdsburg began with old-vine Zinfandel on Aug. 28, and general manager Pete Seghesio expects most of the harvest to be wrapped up within the next three weeks. He sees yields that are a bit below average, but says that this year's bloom and veraison (the point of ripening at which green grapes change color) were quick and even, resulting in consistent grape maturity. It's looking very good, with great flavors, he said.
Further north, in Mendocino County, most wineries planned to start picking over Labor Day weekend. Dennis Martin, director of winemaking for Fetzer Vineyards, expects to begin with Sauvignon Blanc on Sept. 1, then move to Chardonnay over the following week. Yields look slightly smaller than average, he said, due to relatively few grape clusters per vine.
In the Central Coast, Santa Barbara County has had mild conditions and is currently on track for an unusually early start to harvest. Ken Brown, winemaker at Byron Vineyards & Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, will probably begin picking Pinot Noir during the first week of September, with Chardonnay following a week or two later. We have very healthy fruit, with almost no botrytis or mildew, he said. Harvest in the region's cooler vineyards could stretch well into October, he said.
The weather over the next two months will determine the quality of the state's marquee reds, such as Napa Cabernet and Russian River Pinot Noir. The season's manic weather could translate to variations in ripeness within some vineyards with red varieties, but not to such a degree that it challenges conscientious growers. There's maybe a little unevenness due to the heat spikes in June, said Sarah Gott, winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena. But we've gone through and done green-thinning.