From around the valley, grapegrowers are reporting that veraison, the stage of growth when grapes begin to change color, is under way from five days to a month earlier than usual.
The onset of ripening, veraison marks the colorful transition from grape growth to ripening. Red wine grapes turn from green to red and purple while white wine grapes will become golden yellow and translucent.
“Veraison is appearing earlier than last year due to a warm spring and an early start to the growing season,” said Allison Cellini, a viticulturist at Renteria Vineyards.
“(The start of) veraison is not just a date, like harvest,” Cellini added. It can depend on “who is looking where” in the vineyards.” Speaking from vineyards in the Carneros region, she said there they are beginning to see color change in pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, both early ripening varieties.
Cellini’s work takes her to the 36 properties Renteria manages throughout the valley “from Pope Valley to Carneros. My work takes me in one big loop around the valley,” she said. “We see a little bit of everything.”
Like 2013, she said, so far this growing season has been a smooth and easy one. “Last year we called it ‘ideal.’”
Things are happening a little earlier, she said, “but so far, the conditions are nice and the vines are doing exactly what they should.” Yield should be “normal,” she said, and quality good. “But it’s a little bit early to say for sure.”
While the Napa Valley Grapegrowers are officially calling the start of veraison five to 10 days ahead of average, in some instances it’s beginning as much as a month early, said Steve Matthiasson, from Premiere Viticulture and Matthiasson Wines.
For the valley’s most well-known grape, cabernet sauvignon, however, he said that veraison is “just kicking in” especially in vineyards in Calistoga, St. Helena, and on Pritchard Hill and Howell Mountain areas of the valley that tend to be warmer, especially at night. “Of the grapes that are grown in the valley, cab is the latest” in the growth cycle, later to experience versaison and the last to be harvested, he said.
The vines couldn’t have better conditions than the 2014 growing season has provided so far, Matthiasson added. “We haven’t had the really cool days or the really hot days that can shut down the vines. Eighty-five degrees every day, the plants can’t ask for more than that.”
And although groundwater levels are low because of the drought, the 85-degree days have meant “we’ve been able to coast with little irrigation,” he said. “We really dodged a bullet.”
The smoothly unfolding growing season is a stark contrast to what growers were looking at earlier in the year. With no rainfall during the usual rainy season, he said, “we had a legitimate concern that we wouldn’t have a crop this year. We were looking at keeping the grapes alive.”
The rain that finally came in March changed everything, he added. “We got rain at exactly the right time. All of the moisture went into vine growth. We went from salvage to fantastic.”
With the early bloom and veraison, he said, an early harvest is pretty much locked in.
According to the Grapegrowers, the only challenge to this year’s growing season has been some shatter — when grapes fail to develop after flowering — among the merlot vines, which will reduce yield. But even this does not worry Matthiasson. “Merlot can swing wildly,” he explained. “We thought we were looking at a huge crop. Shatter just brought it down to normal.”
“This growing season looks so good, we just have to think of something that isn’t perfect,” agreed Amy Warnock, viticulturist for Orin Swift vineyards, commenting on the merlot shatter. “We’ve been dealt a pretty good hand of cards this year. The canopies look good, the fruit load is large. We’re starting the green thinning,” removing clusters that remain green as others turn color. “Everyone is in a good mood because the earlier harvest begins, the earlier it’s over,” Warnock said.
The Napa Valley Grapegrowers anticipate that the 2014 harvest will begin in late July with grapes destined to become sparkling wines.