Fall in the Napa Valley, at least for me, is about the smell of grapes.
Riding up and down Highway 29 every day, I pass dozens of wineries. The smell of crushed and fermenting grapes is everywhere.
It starts in late August, with the first whiff – literally a whiff – of fall and builds to a heady crescendo in late September and early October. It can last into the winter and spring as vineyards use the spent grapes, known as pomace, as fertilizer.
At first, it’s just a faint fruitiness in the air, but it eventually turns thick and intoxicating, yeasty and almost like crushed pineapple. Later it settles down to something a little more acidic, not unpleasant exactly but not the sweet, fruity cloud that marks the height of crush. Eventually, the smell of composting pomace becomes thin, earthy and slightly sour, the smell of decay but still with that clear grape edge that makes it interesting rather than offensive.
I haven’t studied it scientifically, but it seems likely you can tell something about the size and quality of the harvest from the smell of the thick vapor cloud that floats over the highway during crush. In 2014, my first year of commuting daily up and down the valley, the smell was rich and perfumy. It was a very good year.
In 2015 and 2016, however, the smell during crush was far more muted. Those were crops of lower yield as years of severe drought told on the grape vines.
This year, though, the aroma came roaring back. By the middle of this week, the smell through Rutherford was almost overwhelming and even the most firmly closed windows couldn’t keep it out.
I’m going to bet this is a pretty good year (it certainly was for my tiny collection of backyard vines – we’ll see in a few weeks how the backyard wine turns out).
Unfortunately, the other defining feature of fall in the Napa Valley is traffic. And it’s not tourists either – it’s trucks.
In mid-August, huge trucks laden with white grapes begin to rumble up the valley, bringing chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from cooler climates. But that only impairs traffic headed north mostly.
By mid-September, it’s vast trucks hauling tons of reds on the road, and those trucks go every-which-way: up the valley, down the valley, attempting to make tricky turns off the cross roads and from the larger production facilities near St. Helena.
Things really get crazy later in the season, when the tankers appear in force. Tankers are the bane of every commuter in the valley, since liquid is a heavy cargo and the trucks accelerate with agonizing slowness and hardly ever approach the posted speed limits.
Once I see the first signs of crush in August, I can pretty much count on adding 10 or 15 minutes to my commute through at least October.
But it’s OK if I’m stuck behind a slow-moving grape hauler, or an even slower tanker, as we crawl through Rutherford and Oakville. At least I get to enjoy the aroma of fall.