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California's Golden Harvest


James Laube
Posted: February 3, 2000


California's Golden Harvest
By James Laube, senior editor

HIGHWAY 29, the main artery through Napa Valley, bustled with the sights, sounds and scents of the season, harvest 1997 ...

There's nothing quite like the brilliant fall colors, splashes of red, yellow, orange, gold and brown throughout the vineyards ...

The air is filled with the aroma of newly picked and just-crushed grapes ...

Fermentation tanks bubble away with the newly created wines being converted from grape juice ...

Trucks hauling gondolas loaded with grapes crowd the highways and back roads through Napa and Sonoma as the harvest reaches its climax ... .

THIS IS AN IMPORTANT harvest for California vintners because most are banking on a larger than normal-sized crop in hopes of building up depleted inventories ...

Five of the six past harvests have been below normal, in part because of the damage caused by phylloxera, the vine louse, which has led to widespread replantings of vineyards throughout the state, but mostly in Napa and Sonoma ...

Wine lovers should root for a large harvest too, because it offers the best chance for lower prices and broader wine choices in the next two years, when most of the 1997 wines come to market ...

The basic rules of supply and demand impact prices, so when the crops are small, supply is limited; and of late the demand for California wines has been at an all-time high, allowing many wineries to raise prices ...

A LARGE HARVEST -- including possibly this year's if rain doesn't spoil the party -- usually leads to an oversupply of grapes needed by most wineries, which in turn typically leads to many lower-priced wines made from the grapes not used for the premier cuvees ...

The weather has been excellent of late, warm to hot at midday and into the afternoon -- but refreshingly cool and still in the mornings and evenings. . . .

Even when it rains -- as it has twice already -- it adds a new twist to the plot, just like an unexpected turn in a murder mystery ...

In Napa Valley, the main focus now is on the Cabernet Sauvignon crop -- the valley's most important -- as the grapes grown in the Oakville, Rutherford and hillside vineyards are usually the last to ripen ...

IT'S AN UNUSUALLY large crop of Cabernet this year, which means it takes longer to ripen all the berries ...

In Sonoma County, the harvest usually takes even longer because of the many new vineyard plantings in the western reaches of Russian River Valley. . . .

Cool-climate grapes have many pluses, with the slower-ripening patterns and intensity of flavors -- but they also take longer to ripen and the threat of rain is always in the background ...

This year's harvest in California is not only big, but it's happening all at once ...

THAT MEANS A winery can be harvesting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot or Cabernet -- and have all those grapes arrive at the same time of day, which creates quite a juggling act at the crushing pad ...

Pickers start early, heading into the vineyards at dawn to get the grapes while they're cool and before the sun rises to heat up the land ...

Vintners arrive early and carefully monitor the grapes as they're delivered to the winery before they're unloaded into the crushers ...

In years like this, where there are vineyards hampered by spotty rot and moldy conditions, it's even more crucial to pay attention to the clusters to avoid letting undesirable grapes get into the mix ... .

I SUPPOSE ALL harvests are tricky in one sense or another, farming being what it is, oftentimes quite unpredictable and unforgiving ...

The two rainstorms that hit the North Coast in August and then September caused enough damage in Napa and Sonoma to shake up vintners, but the overall quality appears to be quite excellent ...

That would make it six very good to great vintages in a row in California, the kind of odds that make winemaking look less like a gamble than a sure thing ...

Which is an odd way of handicapping a grape harvest ...


This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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