Sparkling wine producers, usually the first to kick off the harvest, began picking Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay in late August, then took a break before the holiday weekend. Many other winemakers are just beginning to pick their early-ripening Sauvignon Blanc this week, while holding off on other major varieties.
In an early year, we're done toward the end of October," said Ed Sbragia, winemaker for Beringer Estates, which owns more than 10,000 acres in Napa Valley and the Central Coast. "Our yields should be close to normal, but we'll probably pick into November this year."
The quality of both the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay looks promising. "This is the kind of year where winemakers can come out smelling like a rose," said Sbragia. "The berries are small, with lots of flavor and intensity." He also noted that the fruit ripened very consistently, providing tight windows of maturity that simplify the harvesting process.
In Sonoma Valley, the harvest is nearly a month behind the norm, and wineries might be hard pressed to avoid fall storms before all the grapes are picked. "We're anxious, but we always are this time of year," said Bill Parker, winemaker for Santa Rosa's Matanzas Creek Winery, where the estate-vineyard Merlot and Chardonnay crops look to be 20 percent lighter than average.
This year's low yields are attributed to cool spring conditions that hampered flowering and fruit set, as well as a carryover effect from the El Nino-induced storms of last spring. (Inclement weather can affect subsequent vintages since, during the current ripening season, vines develop the following year's buds.)
Despite the threat of fall storms, Sonoma wineries see potentially excellent quality. "The reds have outstanding color development," said Mick Schroeter, a winemaker at Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville. "The Merlot, Shiraz, and Cab are already absolutely black."
Down south in Santa Barbara County, some wineries anticipate an exceptionally late harvest. "Weather tracking puts us seven to ten days behind 1991, which was our latest ever," said Bruce McGuire, winemaker for Santa Barbara Winery.
Though Santa Barbara County's yields are as much as 50 percent lower than usual, this could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Small crops ripen sooner, which might allow producers to escape a fall washout.
With the end of harvest possibly more than two months down the road, winemakers from Santa Barbara to Mendocino County can only hope that an Indian summer pushes them in front of the storms. Said Parker, "It's time to play the wait-and-see game."