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A Breather in California’s High-Speed Harvest

Cooler temperatures in most of the state are allowing flavors to mature
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 20, 2014 11:00am ET

Harvest 2014 was bearing down on California like an express train three weeks ago.

The season got off to an early start and was in a hurry all through June and July, so it was shaping up to be one of the earliest harvests in recent memory.

But just as the first grapes started coming in—Pinot Noir for sparkling wine and light-bodied whites like Sauvignon Blanc—the weather turned cooler and more cloudy in August, particularly in Northern California. 

The rush of harvest turned into a trickle as ripening lulled. Winemakers couldn't be happier. "Prior to the cool-down, I thought we might be knee-deep in fruit by now. It was a moment where you just think, 'OMG, here it comes!'" said Tim Bell, winemaker of Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County.

While the season continues to run ahead of normal, winemakers are pleased because warm years and early harvests often result in grapes that are technically ripe but not fully mature. "I think this has allowed the flavors to catch up," said Ashley Hepworth, winemaker for Joseph Phelps in Napa Valley. 

It looks like the 2014 crop will be big. The California Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts 3.9 million tons, down 8 percent from 2013, but still one for the record book. That makes three large crops in a row.

Those millions of tons are just getting started for now. Joseph Phelps has already picked most of its Sauvignon Blanc and will begin picking specific blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon at Backus Vineyard in Oakville in early September. At Dry Creek Vineyard, Bell is just starting Sauvignon Blanc and will soon begin Chenin Blanc and Zinfandel. On Tuesday, Patz & Hall picked its first Chardonnay in Russian River Valley and Hirsch Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast picked Pinot Noir, the earliest harvest in its 34-year history, said Jasmine Hirsch.

"While everyone is commenting on how early the harvest is, the actual length of the growing season is not shorter than usual," Hirsch added.

The weather has run a bit warmer on the Central Coast, with temperatures in the high 90s in Paso Robles this week. "This is the earliest I've started harvest in the last 16 years, but quality looks great," said Justin winemaker Scott Shirley. His Merlot vineyards are showing good flavor development for such an early year, and he expects to start picking within a week.

Up in the Sierra Foothills, the season is running about normal, perhaps slightly early. Bill Easton of Terre Rouge and Easton wines will make his first pick, Sauvignon Blanc, next week, and the bulk of harvest will come in the last half of September, with grapes such as Roussanne, Viognier, Zinfandel and Syrah.

There is one good thing about having an early harvest, Bell said. "It should help us get fruit ripe and picked before any rains come along in the late fall."

Dry Creek Vineyard
Bill Smart —  August 20, 2014 11:56am ET
Harvest 2014 is happening fast and furious as we speak Tim! Here's to all the hard working people in the vineyards and cellars around wine country. For the next 8-10 weeks these folks won't see their families much. We appreciate your sacrifice and dedication!

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