Caymus Vineyards

In late October, a member of a picking crew makes a final check of a row of Caymus Vineyards cabernet grapes on South Crane Avenue. Carolyn Younger photo 

There is much to accomplish with the 2012 vintage in the Napa Valley before it can be said for certain just how good it will be. Judging from the harvest where yields per acre were up as much as 10 to 20 percent, the 2012 vintage is already being touted as super-excellent in quality as well as quantity. Maybe even the best ever, some growers say.

Opening the door to that possibility are the assessments of four seasoned experts, each of whom has a wealth of experience in the Napa Valley’s wine industry. Leading grower Andy Beckstoffer has been through 43 harvests; winery and vineyard owners Stu Smith and Dawnine Dyer have both been through 39; and Spring Mountain winemaker Jac Cole has 32 years under his belt.

“It may be the best ever; it’s never been any better,” said Beckstoffer, whose family owns and manages 5,000 acres of vineyards in Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

“This is a little premature, but my guess is that it will be the largest crop in Napa County’s history,” asserts Smith, co-owner with his brother Charlie, of Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Spring Mountain. He is a tad conservative in his estimate. “Until the grape crush report comes out in February we won’t know for sure, and I would say the same thing about quality,” he said.

Dyer, co-owner with her husband Bill of Dyer Vineyard on Diamond Mountain, also wants to wait and see before making any pronouncements. “It’s going to rank right up there,” she said, “but I’ve been at it long enough that I no longer make predictions.”

Cole, however, pulled no punches. “This crop will be an absolute tonnage record by far — more than ever before,” he predicted.

The optimism for this year’s vintage springs from a perfect growing season, comparable to 1997 and 2005. Tonnage records were set in both years.

“I can’t say at this point that it is better than ’97 and ’05, but I would swear on a stack of Bibles that it is as good,” said Cole, who has had to be inventive in finding enough space in his fermentation tanks to accommodate the avalanche of fruit coming in from the Spring Mountain vineyard blocks.

Said Beckstoffer: “We started the harvest on Aug. 31 and ended on Oct. 31. It was a long season; we picked for 51 days. What happened was we had moderate weather during the year and right at the end of September we had a cool period where you get flavor development without sugar accumulation. So we saw balanced and ripe fruit. I had never seen such big, luscious bunches in all my life.”

Beckstoffer was particularly impressed by the healthy merlot fruit, calling it “fantastic.”

The down year experienced valleywide in 2011 makes this year’s vintage all the more spectacular, welcome — and just the jump start so critically needed in a lethargic marketing climate, Beckstoffer added.

“It was a quantum leap from a very low year; we were down 47 percent,” he said. “At To Kalon we got only 1.27 tons per acre, which is less than half of what we normally get. Land sales had been down, grape sales had been slashed. We had been in pretty much a major drought for several years.

“But, as we approached summer of 2012, you could feel what was coming. Now the fault line is gone, all the excesses of the past years are wiped away. Most importantly, consumer sales were up

36 percent, and direct consumer sales up 31 percent, so the economy was beginning to agree. All the counties, everybody was up, everybody was healthy. The wineries wanted the fruit and the growers had the fruit. If wine sales continue as they are, it looks like there will be a great demand next year. All of these things coming together in 2012 was the perfect storm.”

Dyer called 2012 a “magic season.”

“It was really well paced and we didn’t struggle with issues such as ‘Is it ripe or is it just sweet?’” she said. “Every winemaking option in the book was open to us. ... There was nothing in the way of maceration. Anything you wanted to do, you could do. The fruit had the soundness to take it.”

Although Smith said Smith-Madrone is in a replanting phase and won’t experience the full extent of the great year, he was enthusiastic about the way the year unfolded.

“It was great growing weather in the springtime and great harvest weather,” he said. “There was no danger, no frost, no mildew, no rain, no rot and virtually no sunburn. We only had a two-day heat spike at the beginning of harvest. It was a wonderful vintage, although until the red wine gets into the barrel we won’t really know how great it was.”

So, how will 2012 stack up against past vintage years?

“I like to say it’s like the guy who jumped off the 50th floor trying to hit the fireman’s net,” Smith said. “As he passed the 20th floor somebody stuck his head out the window and said ‘How are you doing?’ and the guy says, ‘So far so good.’”


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