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On Harvest with … Laurie Hook

Beringer's winemaker talks about this year's harvest of Chardonnay, a grape with more character than many people realize

Jennifer Fiedler
Posted: September 21, 2007

During each year's harvest, Wine Spectator asks several different winemakers to share their thoughts on the challenges of the season and the quality of the grapes they're picking. Since there are so many factors that can influence the timing and quality of the harvest, ranging from the region to the variety to even the experience or opinion of the individual winemaker, it's often difficult to get a true sense of what's happening in the vineyards. This year, Wine Spectator found winemakers who specialize in certain varieties to sound off on their individual, grape-specific experiences—right in the middle of harvest.

Laurie Hook joined Beringer in 1986 after graduating from the enology program at UC Davis and a six-month stint on a vineyard in Australia. She ascended the ranks through assistant winemaker to associate winemaker under longtime wine master Ed Sbragia, and then in 2000, was promoted to winemaker. Hook spoke to WineSpectator.com last week about her 20th harvest at Beringer and why people who overlook Napa Valley Chardonnay are missing out.

The Grapes: Chardonnay

The Geography: Napa Valley

On the growing season: "We started [picking] Chardonnay on Aug. 22nd. It's been a relatively mild [growing season]. We've had less fog and warmer nights than usual. We had several hot days early in July. I remember because I was planting a garden—not the best planning on my part. When it gets hot, the vine can stall out ripening because the heat denatures the proteins and stops all the biochemical reactions, including photosynthesis, but we had very little of that. We had continual ripening. The fact that it was a dry year meant we had lighter yields. Right now I would say I'm anywhere from 15 to 30 percent below estimates, depending on the block. And then all this rolled together for an early harvest. The fruit has just been beautiful. The flavors have developed right along with the sugar, so I think there's a nice balance."

Some days are tougher than others: "The Chardonnay really started to come in, the bulk of it, after Labor Day. So we were actually able … not with much time to spare … to pick things when they were ready to pick, and I feel really good about that. Each day really varies [at the winery]. We might do 20 tons or we might do 5 tons. If it's a really busy day, we can do several hundred tons, but if we got up to 200 that would be a lot.

Knowing what to pick, and when: "For Chardonnay, a lot of it is just flavor. Different vineyards give different types of flavors. Our vineyards are located in what I consider three big areas: Napa and Carneros, and then further north in the Oak Knoll district and then in the Yountville area. With the Family Ranch, which is our Carneros Vineyard, we get more of those really nice crisp vibrant characters, melon and minerals. In the Oak Knoll district we get what I consider more of the typical Napa Valley Chardonnay characters like citrus, apple, pear and some tropical notes. Then when we get up to the Yountville/Oakville area we get a very rich flavor that has a lot of pineapple in it, so they're all just a little different. With a lot of other varieties coming on the scene, Chardonnay can be overlooked by some wine drinkers, but I think there's a lot of nuances. There's a difference in growing climates that we have in the Napa Valley. We really do produce grapes that have different flavor profiles and characteristics—it's not a one-flavor thing."

On coordinating harvest in several vineyards: "I've been working at Beringer for close to 20 years, so I've been able to work with the people in the vineyard department and on the vineyard for quite a long time. I feel like I can get good information from them. We've been out tasting a lot over the years, so they have a very good indication if there's something that I need to go take a look at. Also, I live in Napa and can start off south and work my way north through the vineyards in Carneros to the ones in the Oak Knoll district and then up in Yountville and Oakville to the winery up in St. Helena. It's actually pretty convenient."

But she's never off duty: "I probably get up right around 4:30 to 5; it depends on how late was the night before. I start off with my cell phone being way too active. Then I'm out in the vineyard first thing to check on a pick to see if everything is going according to plan or to taste the fruit to decide what we're going to pick next. I usually make it in [to the winery] by noon and that allows me to wolf something down before our meeting at 1 to discuss what our plans are for picking for the rest of the week. If I can I'll try to leave the winery by 9 or 9:30. I have my cell phone with me and that goes to bed with me. You're never really away."

Predictions for 2007: "In some ways [this vintage is] a little like 2004. It always takes some time to sit down and compare temperatures, but [it is similar] being on the early side, being a little lighter of a crop and then having some warm temperatures in the beginning of September. Seems like every year, we're saying, "Oh, this year is different," or, "This year is unique," which makes me wonder when you've said that for the 20th time. Obviously, this year did start early—one of the earliest ones. It will be interesting to see when we finish. It's got to be one of the earliest-ending harvests as well. If you had asked me before it cooled down a few days ago, I could have given you a much better estimate [on when the harvest would finish], but I do expect it to be done earlier, certainly more than normal. Without looking at any really odd outliers, I think we'll finish picking Chardonnay by the end of next week [the week of Sept. 17]. Being an earlier harvest, we have nice acidity levels. I think it will be a really nice white year and hopefully a really nice red year."

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