1999 Harvest Report: Growing Season Update
8/17/1999 - Napa Valley is experiencing a long, cool winegrowing season that promises great quality and good quantity, according to experts here.
"We started with a cool, dry spring and really haven't seen any tremendous heat spikes," says Dave Whitmer, Napa County Agricultural Commissioner. "Overall we're about two weeks behind a typical year, but because the season has been so steady, fruit quality is looking good. The crop has been able to mature at an even pace."
Budbreak occurred near the end of March and bud development continued at a slow pace due to nighttime frosts and persistent marine-layer fog throughout much of April. Summer announced itself in July with temperatures hitting the 100 mark throughout the valley early in the month.
Since then, the heat level has slowly dropped off into a period of unseasonably cool temperatures with daytime highs topping out in the 70s and 80s with nighttime lows in the 40s.
"It feels like the Northern Rhone in France, really cool," says Rex Geitner, vineyard manager, Spring Mountain Vineyard. "But we're enthused about this season. Our crop levels look better than last year and we're excited about the quality of our Bordeaux-variety reds as well as our whites. What we hope for is a dry October."
A report released recently by the California North Coast Grape Growers Association estimates this year's overall Napa Valley grape crop to be up 18 percent from last year's 102,000 tons. The Association is projecting a crop of 125,000 tons which is near the ten year average of 122,000.
Besides a potential increase in crop size, growers are eyeing other positive signs. The intermittent cool spells help retain the fruits' natural acidity and maintain healthy pH balances. These conditions also allow the phenolic constitution of the grape skins to develop a more mature character - a wine lover's dream as the phenolics extracted from the skins provide the wines' rich varietal aromas, flavors, texture and color.
Also, because of this year's long, stable growing season, next year's buds have formed under optimal conditions, which may mean an even more abundant crop for the first harvest of the next millennium. "We're optimistic about crop levels next year Ö we had a warm, dry spring and everything is growing surprisingly well in spite of so little early season rain," says Geitner.
"At this point Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot in the Carneros district are four to five weeks behind average, while upvalley vines are further along - just about two weeks behind normal," says Mitchell Klug, vineyard manager, Robert Mondavi Winery. "The real plus this year (calculated from July 1, 1998 to June 30, 1999) is that we've had 35 inches of rain as compared to 65 inches in 1998."
This year's slower ripening rate works well for makers of sparkling wine, according to Schramsberg Vineyards Associate Winemaker Hugh Davies.
"Since sparkling wine producers are picking at about 19f brix levels, we're in the vineyards earlier than anyone else. In years when crews are harvesting in late July or early August, during the summer's peak temperatures, the grapes arrive at the winery at warmer temperatures. In a year like this, when we'll start picking in late August or early September, the temperatures will be lower and the grapes will be coming to the crush pad nice and cool, retaining all of their best characteristics."
Some growers have expressed concerns about this year's potentially late harvest dates, because of the increased chance of late autumn rains, which can create moisture-induced disease.
"A late harvest increases disease pressures because once you have rain, you risk Botrytis and other forms of bunch rot," says Ag Commissioner Whitmer. "Right now we're hoping for a few more days in the 90s."
Fortunately, today's Napa Valley vineyards are more prepared than ever for problems such as cooler temperatures, slower-maturing vintages and rain, according to Tom Shelton, president, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and president of the Napa Valley Vintners.
"Advanced vineyard management practices such as crop thinning, leaf removal and trellising techniques have diminished some of the challenges we faced a decade or two ago," Shelton says.