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Aug 20, 2010

Outlook: 2010 Napa Grape Harvest

 David Beckstoffer speaking at this week's NVGA Press Conference

This past Wednesday I attended the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association (NVGA) press conference, an annual event that offers an overview of the coming winegrape harvest. The morning fog was just starting to disappear from the Valley floor when I turned on to Conn Creek Road, and by the time I arrived at Beckstoffer Vineyards a few minutes later it was sunny. The press conference was held on a green expanse of lawn surrounded by Beckstoffer's famed Georges III vineyard, with beautifully-restored 1800s farm buildings in the distance—a particularly pastoral location.

We’ve had an unusually cool summer here in wine country. The tomatoes and beans in my garden have been agonizingly slow to ripen—and of course it’s just the same for the grapes. A cool grape-growing season is worrisome for numerous reasons, including the potentially negative effect on crop quality, so I was anxious to hear what the experts had to say.

In a nutshell, everyone seemed positive and upbeat. Yes, it’s been cool—but the growers have been using every tool and trick at their disposal to mitigate the weather. Just two examples: limiting water to the vines forces the grapes to ripen; judicious removal of leaves allows direct sunlight to touch and ripen the grapes. As it stands now, the grapes will be harvested about a week later than usual, but an uptick in heat during Indian Summer could reduce that time.

John Conover, the General Manager of Plumpjack Winery and CADE Winery, noted that it's "unfair to equate slower, cooler vintages to poor quality wine. Sometimes great wines come out of cool years.” To prove his point he’d brought along a few bottles of Plumpjack Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 2005 (another cool-vintage year). It’s a fabulous wine, incredibly well-structured and rich with plum, chocolate and spice.

At any rate, here’s the official press release from NVGA:


NAPA, Calif. (August 19, 2009) – Napa Valley Grapegrowers, an organization of those who produce the premier fruit from which some of the world’s finest wines are derived, held its annual press conference Wednesday, August 18, at Beckstoffer Vineyards in Rutherford, California to forecast the 2010 Napa Valley winegrape harvest and address ongoing concerns about the cooler-than-average temperatures thus far in the growing season.

The harvest press conference featured a panel of grapegrowers and viticulturists, from various Napa Valley appellations. Topics included the potential impact of the cool growing season on the size and quality of this year’s crop, grape prices, labor supply, the European Grapevine Moth threat, and the effects of the economic downturn on grapegrowers.



“Whether we’re faced with challenging economic conditions, challenging growing conditions, threats from pests, or enjoying a perfect growing season in a robust economy, the focus of Napa Valley growers remains the same: quality,” said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “The superior quality of our grapes is what sets Napa Valley apart each and every vintage.”

Panelists, who spoke surrounded by Beckstoffer’s Georges III vineyard in Rutherford, included David Beckstoffer, president of Beckstoffer Vineyards and president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers; Jon Ruel, director of viticulture and winemaking for Trefethen Family Vineyards and vice president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers; John Conover, general manager of Plumpjack Winery and CADE Winery; and Mary Maher, vineyard manager at Harlan Estate and BOND.

David Beckstoffer emphasized that while many of their vineyard sites are 10 days to two weeks late, slower and more even flavor development, allowing sugars and flavors to develop together, is a benefit of a slightly delayed harvest. He indicated that crop size appears to be slightly below average, but growers won’t know for sure until the grapes are picked.

Beckstoffer also pointed out that if temperatures rise after harvest begins, this year’s harvest may actually finish earlier than anticipated. Beckstoffer said that a shorter harvest could put some pressure on grapegrowers to get all of the fruit picked quickly, so crews may be working nights and weekends to make sure that the grapes get to the wineries when they are at optimal ripeness. Much of Napa Valley’s labor force lives locally year-round, and workers are well-trained for the skilled labor involved in winegrape growing.

Jon Ruel stressed that because Napa Valley is so diverse in its soil types, exposures and topography, growers must approach the farming of each block and grape variety uniquely to achieve optimal ripeness. Each year brings a new set of variables, including weather, water availability, and advances in vineyard technology, and growers adjust every year to meet new challenges.

In most of his vineyards, Ruel added, crop thinning – which happens almost every year – is crucial to achieving ripeness this season because of the cooler temperatures. Asked to compare this year to others, he said, “With merlot, for instance, we have dropped more than last year and more than average, but with other grapes it may be different. It really depends on the vineyard site.” Ruel also said that limiting irrigation, which affects berry size and the vine’s canopy size, can be used to force the vine to move through its ripening cycle.

John Conover agreed that great wines can come from cooler vintages. "The jury is still out on whether this is a cool vintage or not,” Conover noted. “The wines are really a result of what happens in September and October, and there’s no telling what the weather will do.” He added that with all the tools and techniques available to winegrape growers in Napa Valley, and the level of cooperation between growers and vintners to strive for the highest quality versus quantity, the weather related challenges are far less daunting than they would have been a generation ago. Conover also addressed the economic challenges that were felt in Napa Valley during the previous harvest, saying that “People are cautiously optimistic."

Mary Maher said this year reminds her of the 1991 and 1998 growing seasons, both of which were cooler than average yet produced many outstanding wines throughout Napa Valley. Maher said that because the growing season started out cooler than expected, they made the decision to thin the leaf canopies far earlier than normal. Opening up canopies early around the clusters early after set helps reduce unwanted flavors that may be more pronounced in a cooler grower season. Maher also said that they thinned the clusters to an estimated 2 to 2½ tons per acre, to ensure better flavor development. Preliminary crop estimates seem to be about average in size even with the wet spring weather. “These mild mid 80 degree days have been great for ripening. Veraison in cabernet has moved along nicely.”

Reducing the canopy size can re-direct the vine’s energy towards ripening optimum fruit. Maher also said that they thinned the clusters to an estimated two tons per acre, the low end of their crop threshold, to ensure better flavor development. Regardless, she said, this is not a low crop year, but about average.


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