Napa Valley grapes on fast track

Napa Valley grapes on fast track

Napa Valley viticultural consultant Garrett Buckland said his clients should not be expecting a crop as big as last season, but higher prices and exceptional quality should more than offset any lower tonnage.

The 2013 Napa County wine grape crop isn’t likely to match last year’s record crush. However, the price of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon could top last year’s record high levels. Add the prospects for top quality grapes and both growers and vintners in the valley’s 16 sub-appellations should be smiling at season’s end.

That’s how vineyard consultant Garrett Buckland assesses the prospects for the maturing crop in mid-July. Buckland is a partner in Premiere Viticultural Services, a Napa, Calif., consulting firm that works with 30 clients. Most are in Napa and Sonoma counties.

“The yields won’t be quite as high this year as last season, but the 2013 crop looks fantastic,” he says. “Overall, the prices growers receive for their grapes will be higher than last year.”

Buckland expects close-to-average yields in Cabernet Sauvignon and all Bordeaux varieties, and above-average production for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

It has been the plentiful warm, dry weather this year season that has Buckland excited about the quality prospects.

“This year started off fairly dry,” Buckland says. “A hot, dry spring is a challenge in the vineyard, but it allows for better canopy management to control vine growth and berry diameter for making better quality wine. But the biggest benefit of an early season like this one is the ability to let the crop hang out a little longer to eliminate any green character in the grapes. Vineyards in cooler areas will benefit greatly from the accelerated season.” This season’s unusually warm weather includes record high temperatures in July. Some growers recorded highs of 110 degrees. Fortunately, humidity levels were high (30 percent to 40 percent) and that is better for grapes, if not people.
Most growers reacted to high temperature forecasts by switching to fungicides rather than sulfur for control. Sulfur can burn grapes in high heat. Many also minimized spreader and sticker use. “They can disrupt the waxy coating on the outside of berries to increase absorption of solar radiation,” Buckland says. “Temperatures in the berries can easily be 5 to 10 degrees higher than ambient temperatures. So, you don’t want to make that any worse.”

Growers also used overhead sprinklers, micro-sprinklers or misters to cool down the canopies and fruit.

“Many organic growers have been struggling to stay ahead of the powdery mildew,” he says. “But, most vineyards are clean.”

The first of the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon grapes began turning red in mid-July. That’s a week or two earlier than usual, Buckland notes. He expected about half the Cabernet Sauvignon and most of the Chardonnay grapes to have begun softening by the end of the third week of July.

Labor situation

“The current weather should result in a short-duration veraison,” Buckland says. “We should see veraison in a vineyard go from about 5 percent of the grapes to 95 percent in less than two weeks.”

That would make for a crop of more uniform ripeness and higher quality. However, with most of the red and white varieties going through veraison at much the same time, they also should be ready for harvest at a similar time. That could leave wineries hard-pressed to handle the crop in a timely manner. “Last year’s record crop was a good test of Napa County’s harvest capacity,” he adds. “This year the wineries should be very busy again turning tanks.”

Growers will likely begin picking grapes for sparkling wines in the first week of August, a week earlier than normal, he predicts. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc harvests for still wines should be under way by early September, if not a little sooner. Buckland expects Cabernet and Merlot grapes to start coming off the vines towards the end of September.

“October is the busiest month for Napa Valley,” Buckland says. “The Cabernet Sauvignon harvest usually spans about a 45-day period. With such a diverse range of vineyard sites, from mountains to the valley floor, there are always some growers picking grapes into the first week of November.”

As elsewhere in California, labor availability is an ongoing concern in Napa. The critical time here is not getting the grapes picked in the fall but tending the vines in the spring, he notes. The biggest demand is for workers who can perform the detailed canopy work from May through early June. This conflicts with the labor demand for fruit harvests elsewhere.

Napa County’s labor situation differs from most other areas of the Golden State in still another way.

“We’re fortunate to have the financial resources to pay a much higher wage rate than surrounding areas, with many of our employees receiving benefits,” Buckland says. “That buffers us somewhat, but we still want to foster a sustainable labor force. That’s why we’re working hard to attract skilled workers and provide them year-round employment.  A sustainable and well-cared-for workforce is a crucial component.

If you would like to read more about California grape growing, subscribe to GrapeLine, the exclusive electronic newsletter sponsored twice a month by Chemtura: See here for sign-up. It’s free and e-mailed the second and fourth weeks of each month from March through October.


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