Mumm Napa winemaker Ludovic Dervin said Monday’s annual harvest celebration at the Rutherford winery was a true rite of passage. “It’s the passing of the grapes from the workers in the vineyards to the wine makers. It’s the moment when all the hard labor in the fields gets transformed into the vintage of 2017.”

This year’s celebration was no exception. Dervin had gathered together the crews of Mumm Napa onto the crush pad to celebrate the arrival of the first pinot noir grapes.

These first grapes were picked early Monday morning from the Green Island Vineyards along the Napa River in the American Canyon Carneros area. According to vineyard owner Julie Nord of Nord Vineyard Services, the Green Island Vineyard has 140 acres planted in pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris and malbec. According to Nord, Dervin had been out in the vineyards early that morning, assessing the readiness of the grapes for the first crush of the season. Later at the crush pad, he said he was quite enthusiastic about the grapes.

“Like last year, this year’s first grapes are from Green Island Vineyards,” Dervin said. “We look for three things in these grapes: Acidity, flavor quality, and sweetness.” He praised the Nord family’s attention to detail in the vineyards. Citing the winery’s relationship with the Nords back to 1996, he recounted the challenges they had faced in 2017.

“It was record-breaking weather,” he said. “The extraordinary amounts of rain resulted in quite a large canopy, which necessitated special care in managing the suckering and the removal of extra canes.” But the cool, foggy mornings, the soils (Haire loam with sand and gravel below 3 feet) and the vineyard’s proximity to San Pablo Bay make it, according to Dervin, ideal for creating a bountiful and flavorful harvest for sparkling wine.

Dervin also cited the extraordinary vineyard sustainability practices of the Nord family that includes barn owl boxes to help reduce rodent pests, the vineyard’s habitat restoration record, and its “Certified Green” designation.

Dervin said that he expected a harvest slightly above the Napa Valley average, resulting in a great vintage. He said that, when crushed, he fully expected to reach the target Brix of between 18.5 and 20.

Every winery cherishes some aspect of its annual harvest celebration, and Mumm Napa along the Silverado Trail is no exception. The crews were gathered along the crush pad, each wearing a blue Mumm Napa T-shirt emblazoned with “Better with Bubbles” on the back. Many took photographs with their cell phones as Dervin recited the three tenants that have been passed down since the winery’s construction in 1987: “Family, Tradition and Pride.”

Dervin then placed mementos representing each of these elements into a wooden “memory box.” These included the names of seven employees who have worked at Mumm Napa for more than 25 years to represent family; a plaque denoting that the winery was celebrating its 30th year since its construction in 1987 to represent tradition; and a photograph of the new outdoor tasting area, to represent the winery’s pride.

Dervin then held up a leather-bound notebook. He said it contained the names of all those who had attended previous harvest ceremonies going back to 1987. “I want each of you to write your names in these pages too,” he said.

It was then time for the “sabering.” This is a tradition, according to Dervin, that stretches back to Napoleon’s cavalry. The cavalry would ride into town on their horses after each successful battle, seize a bottle of Champagne from the proffering hands of the townspeople, and open the bottles with their sabers.

“Would they carefully unwrap the foil?” he asked with a grin. “Would they meticulously untie the wire cage holding down the cork? Of course not! They would break open the bottle with their sabers, still astride their horses.”

And with that, Dervin donned a safety hat and a scabbard, stepped several paces aside, drew out his saber and cut the neck of a bottle of sparkling wine with a “pop” to the roar his co-workers. He then walked over to the waiting gondola of pinot noir grapes and “baptized” the first grapes of 2017 with the sparkling wine.

All of a sudden, chaos ensued. Each worker grabbed a 187 ML bottle of sparkling wine from the table and began popping the corks in disjointed and syncopated explosions. They doused and sprayed each other with mad abandon.

After pausing for just a moment, each raised a glass to the harvest of 2017, and then signed their names into the leather-bound journal of Mumm Napa harvests atop the wooden memory box. And so the harvest officially begins at Mumm Napa.


Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.