A rainy winter and record-breaking heat made for a wild growing season, but Napa Valley’s vineyards seem to have passed the test.
That was the message of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ annual harvest press conference held Tuesday morning, moderated by CEO and Executive Director Jennifer Putnam.
The winter was the wettest in 30 years and the third wettest in 100 years, said Rory Williams, assistant vineyard manager and assistant winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery. Milestones such as budbreak, bloom, and the beginning of harvest occurred later than the last few years but more in line with historical averages.
“It allowed us to get back to somewhat of a more normal schedule for those vines,” Williams said.
The residual soil moisture and humidity also “helped balance out some pretty brutal weather” when the vines were hit with a sustained heat wave in early September, Williams said, noting that Rutherford hit 114 degrees.
During intense heat, vines stay alive by sucking water either from the grapes or, if possible, from the soil, Williams said. Adequate soil moisture allowed the vines to draw at least some of that water from the ground, leaving the grapes less damaged than they would have been otherwise.
“Part of the problem is that once you reach 114 degrees, no matter how much you’re irrigating or how much soil moisture is down there, the vines simply can’t take up enough rapidly enough,” Williams said. “So you’re really hoping for some cold nights.”
Fortunately, occasional high temperatures in June, July and August had helped the vines get acclimated to the heat, leaving them better prepared for their September scorching, said Oscar Renteria, CEO and owner at Renteria Vineyard Management and Renteria Family Wines.
The preceding hot days had also served as an “early warning system” for growers who responded by adjusting their canopies and putting up shade cloth if necessary, Renteria said. About 15 percent of the vineyards Renteria manages now have shade cloth, which is far more than at any time in the past, he said.
The highest temperatures come late in the afternoon when the sun beats down from over the western hills, so growers made sure to keep some leaves on the west side of the vines to shade the grapes, Williams said.
“We don’t touch one side of the vine at all, whereas the other side of the vine is very much opened up, (allowing) for good air flow to help control fungal diseases and things like that,” Williams said.
This year’s crop load varies from vineyard to vineyard, said Meaghan Becker, general manager at Quintessa. Younger blocks that tended to struggle more with the heat are showing lower yields, but older blocks that weathered the heat better are at or above average, she said.
The cooler temperatures that came after the early September heat wave have been ideal for ripening, Becker said. Quintessa has harvested all of its sauvignon blanc, but only about 10 percent of its reds.
“It’s given us some extra time to leave the vines alone and let the fruit hang, which helps to develop some really complex flavors, which is what you’re looking for in a fine wine,” she said.
Warmer weather is approaching, so more than a third of Quintessa’s reds will have been harvested by the end of this week, Becker said.
Vineyard managers are also vigilant of the threat the heat poses to vineyard workers, Renteria said. As much work as possible takes place during the cooler nighttime hours, and workers are well-trained on how to stay safe in the heat.
Even the late morning is often too late in the day to harvest, Williams said.
“You can’t pick in 90-degree weather,” Williams said. “It’s not helpful to anybody.”
In addition to reasonable working hours, local farmworkers have access to professional development, education and housing programs, said Becker.
The Napa Valley is tending to look at farmworkers more as a year-round workforce, rather than being brought in for discreet tasks at various points in the growing season, Williams said. That means thinking holistically in terms of total annual compensation and benefits like insurance and vacation time.
Another shift among the workforce has been the expanding role of women in the vineyards. Renteria said women are now 35 percent of his workforce, compared with less than 5 percent just four years ago.
Their labor is needed, so “thank God” women are taking vineyard jobs, Renteria said.
“There’s a necessity and a great opportunity, and they’re doing great work,” he said.