Richie Allen, Rombauer Vineyards
For those who take part in it, harvest time in Napa Valley, which recently came to an end, is at once one of the most exhausting of times and the most exhilarating of times.
Harvest can start in early August, when vintners who make sparkling wines start picking chardonnay, pinot noir, and other grapes when they are less ripe, with more acidity and less sugar than grapes for table wines — ideal for making bubbles! In some years, on the other end, harvest can lasts well into November, especially if sweeter or more alcoholic wines are being made from late-harvest grapes.
Winemakers, vineyard owners, and their crews are constantly walking through vine row after vine row, chewing on grapes to see if both the pulp and the seeds taste ripe, and dropping other grapes into baggies to send back to labs for chemical analysis to confirm the results of their taste tests.
Commercial vineyard services begin work months in advance to be sure they have secured enough workers to be able to pick their customers' grapes when they want them picked. (“You need 20 people at 6 a.m. tomorrow, and you didn’t know until today?”) Smaller wine estates have done what they can to entice family, friends, relatives, even customers from across the country to experience the harvest first-hand. Increasingly, night picking is being done to keep the grapes cool.
Imagine that you’re getting ready to fix a large holiday meal or have just finished one. Can you ever find enough containers and enough room in the refrigerator? That’s the task in the winery magnified: Where do you put wine from last year’s harvest that has not yet been bottled or even blended? What’s being fermented? Where do you put what's being fermented and what's coming in to the reception pad this morning? Do we need to build a bigger winery?
And speaking of refrigerators, pickers and winery workers — some of who are experiencing their first harvest as interns — need to be fed. Fewer wineries are fixing large midday meals for pickers these days as schedules overlap and many bring, or are provided, box lunches. But it’s not just lunch — the need for evening meals and late-night snacks is common as many of the regular winery staff are working multiple shifts. And there has to be a big, festive meal when the last grape has been squeezed of its juices.
Finally, there are the rituals. Some of the more religious (or superstitious) will have a priest, minister, or rabbi in to bless the harvest as it begins. Then there are winery-specific rituals, such as pouring a glass of the previous vintage into the vats containing grapes just harvested. The same songs may be blasted in the winery year after year to pump up the crews as they pump over fermenting wine. For guests and tourists, there is the allure of the purple feat — and feet — of grape stomping.
But what of the 2016 harvest?
Todd Graff of Frank Family Vineyards is a good person to ask, as he makes everything from high-quality reds and whites to sparkling wines to dessert wines and sees grapes from all over the valley.
“We had plentiful rain in 2016, and the vines looked strong and healthy after the drought years,” he says. “A warm, early growing season had everything off to an early start, so our first sparkling grapes were picked on Aug. 8. Then a cooler, late summer let the fruit hang and pushed back the harvest.” Yields were also good, Graff says, adding that the winery came within “spitting distance” of its crop/yield predictions. “What I notice immediately about the young wines,” he adds, “are their exceptional colors and depth.”
“The entire ripening season enjoyed cooler than average daytime highs and cold nights — perfect for inky, complex wines,” she said. “Measured in pace, it was also easy on the winemakers.”
For the state as a whole, the crop was estimated at 3.9 million tons of grapes harvested, about an average yield.
And reflecting everyone’s thoughts, Graff says, “We will sleep well after this harvest!”