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Napa Valley Grape Growers Gearing Up for Second Half of 2017 harvest

Most growers have harvested 35 percent or more of their fruit; yields for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay lighter than expected, Small berry size and complete phenolic development indicate high-quality fruit
by Kerana Todorov
September 25, 2017

Napa Valley grape growers are gearing for the second half of the 2017 harvest.

As of Friday, most growers reported 35 percent or more of their fruit. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay yields are said to be lighter than expected.

Small berry size and complete phenolic development indicate high-quality fruit, according to the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, who wll moderate a press conference on the 2017 harvest. The session is live on the trade association’s Facebook page.

Most white grapes and early varieties have been picked.

At Schramsberg Vineyards & Davies, 99 percent of the fruit for the sparkling wine program has been brought in from four counties, including Napa and Sonoma. Yields are on average 5 to 10 percent lower, said Matthew Levy, marketing and E-commerce manager, in an email Friday.

In the still wine program, harvest began Labor Day with pinot noir from Anderson Valley. The first pinot noir grapes from Napa — along with Malbec grapes from the company’s estate Diamond Mountain vineyard — are expected this week.

Sugars slowed down in last week’s cool weather but Don Clark, vineyard manager at Nord Vineyards, anticipates the pace will pick up soon. His company has about 300 acres left to pick from Pope Valley to Yountville.

In Pope Valley, Bryan Avila, winemaker at Pope Valle Winery, looked forward to give the cabernet sauvignon some “nice hang time” after picking other varieties, including merlot. “The quality is solid,” he said. On Friday, Avila said the cabernet can hang “a little longer.”

Jim Lincoln, vineyard manager at Beckstoffer Vineyards, expects harvest will last through October.

Like Clark at Nord Vineyards, Lincoln expects harvest will pick up next week after a lull between the whites and the reds harvest.

Harvest at Beckstoffer Vineyards started Aug. 8, with pinot noir for sparkling wines in Carneros.

“Harvest started slow but picked up after the heat spike,” Lincoln said, referring to the Phoenix-like heat wave early September. “While brix went up with dehydration during the heat there was significant recovery with all the humidity that followed,” he added.

At Volker Eisele Family Estate on Lower Chiles Valley Road, Alexander Eisele expects slightly higher yields than last year.

Harvest of the reds started Sept. 13 – about a week earlier than in 2016 – with merlot. This year’s heat spikes have had no negative effects on the vineyards, Eisele said on Sept. 13. The tiny amount of rain was just enough to keep the dust down, he said.

The Eisele vineyard received 54 inches of rain last rainy season, a record over the 43 years the Eisele family has farmed the land. “This was huge for us. The rain was nicely spread out so it really went into the soil and didn’t do any damage/erosion. Because of this moisture in the soil the vines could easily withstand the heat spikes throughout the summer months,” Eisele said in an email.

Kevin Morrisey, winemaker and general manager at Ehlers Estate north of St Helena, said the hot weather simply accelerated the ripening. There was a little damage from the intense heat over Labor Day. As of Sept. 15, he expected a 10 percent drop in overall yield.

The rains earlier this month was not an issue. Neither was the humidity, which was a concern but did not cause mildew. “It gets really breezy here where we are, so the moisture dries up pretty quickly,” Morrisey said.

Overall the vineyard is in good shape. “We manage the vineyard all year long preparing for the worst, hoping for the best,” Morrisey said.

Jon Ruel, chief executive officer at Trefethen Family Vineyards, on Sept. 15 reported no heat damage in the two estate vineyards.

“The climate in the Napa Valley is quite sunny and it is in fact not unusual to have heat spells around the beginning of September,” he said. “Over time, we have adapted our vineyard practices to mitigate the risk of very high temperatures. The best tool we have is actually the grapevine itself - and specifically the leaves. Leaves are designed to catch sun!” he said. “One of the major weaknesses of traditional VSP trellis systems is that the foliage is crammed into a tight envelope and the grapes can be over-exposed to direct sunlight.”

“In our vineyards, we have gone back to using more horizontally divided canopy systems which allow the vine shoots and leaves to provide a natural parasol shading the grapes from the midday sun. In our remaining VSP blocks, we have installed additional cross-arms to provide the same effect and/or increased the number of leaves we allow around the clusters during leaf and lateral removal.”

Like other grape growers, the vines are pro-actively irrigate the vines before the heat spikes “so that they enter the spell fresh, not tired.”

Temperatures hit 108 degrees Fahrenheit Sept. 1-2. Luckily, there was some moisture in the air, Ruel said.
At UC Davis’s Oakville Station, Dr. Kaan Kurtural and his students are harvesting grapes from experimental blocks — and data. Fruit from experimental rows is hauled to UC Davis’ winery; clients pick grapes from non-experimental blocks.

Kurtural, who said he received calls from concerned grapegrowers after the Labor Day heat spike, is optimistic famer will adjust to hotter weather conditions.

Like Ruel, Kurtural said VSP is on the way out as summers become hotter. During the last heat spike, berry temperatures at the experimental vineyards reached 62 degrees Celsius – or 143.6 degrees Fahrenheit. “I mean that’s tissue death!” Kurtural said.

Vineyard orientation is another strategy. Grapegrowers may also use protect the vine with shade cloth, he said. Data indicate the cheaper, black cloth works best, said Kurtural, as a PhD student collected data in the experimental vineyard.

Still, the main issue on growers’ mind is no the heat spikes but labor costs and mechanization. Growers want more information on mechanization, said Kurtural, as he showed experimental rows planted for mechanization experiments.

Steve Moulds, Napa Valley Grapegrower board member and owner of Moulds Family Vineyard, has used shade cloth at his Oak Knoll vineyard to cool berries during the heat spell. He also irrigates his vineyard on the edge of Napa.

“It’s been a challenge for all us,” Moulds said, referring to the weather. Yet like other growers, he was optimistic about this year’s harvest. “Overall, we’re holding our own.”

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Workers pick Merlot on Sept. 15 at Trefethen Family Vineyards. photo, Jon Ruel/Trefethen Family Vineyards

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