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Napa Valley harvest report: Harvest begins amid fire and smoke
Napa Valley harvest report

Napa Valley harvest report: Harvest begins amid fire and smoke

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: August 28, 2020 series

Even as thousands of people were forced from their homes by wildfires, local grapegrowers had to attend to this year’s harvest.

“As the dramatic events played out through the rest of the week, we have adjusted many things on so many fronts, yet harvest has continued,” said Kristin Belair of Honig Vineyard & Winery. “We are saddened by so much loss and extremely grateful for all the effort and dedication of our first responders and community members.”

Here’s the first harvest report of 2020, organized by American Viticultural Area (AVA):

Calistoga — Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena — “It’s normally difficult to put the beginning of harvest into words, but this year it’s for very different reasons. We certainly can’t control the fire, smoke, temperature, or the wind; we can only control our thoughts, decisions, and actions. And while the dynamic nature of the current situation poses considerably more questions than answers, it’s fused our team together in methodically and steadfastly doing our best with what we’ve been dealt. As we continue to harvest Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from downvalley, with Calistoga remaining mostly quiet, we’re focused on taking one day at a time and being grateful for it. Our thoughts and prayers are with our friends and neighbors affected by the fires.”

Howell Mountain — Laura Barrett, Clif Family Winery — “We have been under mandatory evacuation since Aug. 19 due to the surrounding wildfire activity. We are grateful for our local firefighters and the endless work they are doing. Most Cabernet has just recently finished veraison, so we are weeks away from harvest. Our AVA sits high above the valley floor, so skies have been variable, depending on location of the ranch and the time of day. We continue to keep a positive attitude and are hopeful for the health and safety of our community, and clear skies in the coming days to continue our ripening season.”

Spring Mountain District — Stuart Smith, Smith-Madrone Winery — “Despite the heat, rolling blackouts, lightning, fires and now smoke, the vines are holding up much better than most of us are. Only those vines nearest the forests are showing real stress. Crop levels appear below normal, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon. Stony Hill has already harvested some Chardonnay and may harvest Gewürztraminer later this week. Keenan, Schweiger and Smith-Madrone are looking to start their Chardonnay later this week or early next week. Schweiger may also start their Pinot Noir this week.”

St. Helena — Matt Reid, Benessere Vineyards — “Heat waves, a tropical storm and lightning-induced fires are no way to bring the beautiful 2020 growing season to a close, but our community continues to pull together in these challenging times. Our sympathies go out to those impacted by the fires, and our appreciation goes out to everyone who is providing assistance to those who have been displaced.

“Although some white grapes have been harvested, our reds are still hovering around 20 Brix. We will nurture them through the heat and other stresses to achieve the rich flavors and ripe tannins that the St. Helena AVA is known for. The Sangiovese for our Rosato and old vine Zinfandel are the likely first picks at our estate and we anxiously await their arrival.”

Rutherford — Kristin Belair, Honig Vineyard & Winery — “Harvest 2020 began at Honig Vineyard and Winery with Sauvignon Blanc arriving from Gordon Valley early in the morning of Aug. 17. As the dramatic events played out through the rest of the week, we have adjusted many things on so many fronts, yet harvest has continued. We are saddened by so much loss and extremely grateful for all the effort and dedication of our first responders and community members. Our colleagues continue to express incredible resilience and optimism. Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock said of their vineyard on Mee Lane in Rutherford: “Excited to be bringing in our Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris from our Rutherford Vineyard. Flavors are beautiful and some really lovely acidity! First fruit of 2020 for us as we are still a few weeks out on our reds! Let the games begin!”

Oakville — Jennifer Rue, Oakville Ranch Vineyards — “Even before the massive lightning fire complex, the 2020 growing season had us on track for an early, fast, and complicated harvest. Now, fire season is upon us as Oakville brings in its first white grapes adding another dimension to the 2020 balancing act between health, safety, and economic impacts. Everyone wants to know what is going to happen and what it means. As of this moment, Oakville has been spared direct fire hits and maintained access to our vineyards and wineries. Red grape harvest is still weeks away, giving us time to assess the impacts of smoke on our grapes as we prepare and hope for the best.”

Yountville — Louis Kapcsandy, Jr., Kapcsandy Family Winery — “As much of the valley begins cleaning tanks, presses, picking lugs, and must pumps in anticipation of a fine crop, there is a steely resolve that the show must not only go on, but pierce triumphantly through all the uncertainty of the present moment. When reflecting on this year’s growing season to date, a sizable portion of it was normal. Some temperature fluctuations mid-spring saw valley floor sites in Yountville sail into the low 90s on May 7-8, drop 20 degrees the following week, then set record highs from the 25-27. A cooler July helped the vines coast through veraison (color shift in the red varietals), and even the recent heat wave arrived before the clusters become completely exposed as they will be later in the season when the early (basal) leaves yellow and fall.

“Sauvignon Blanc has ripened early and most of it is already crushed and fermenting. Reds for rose programs are coming off the vine with excellent acids and freshness. For the reds, as most of you may already know, another 5-6 weeks of ripening is needed and if Mother Nature cooperates, 2020 will produce some prodigious Cabernets.

Stags Leap District — Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock Winery — “The 2020 growing season had been fairly smooth right up until this month. We experienced lower than average winter rains and a mild, but inconsequential frost season. Spring was relatively stable, although we did see some shatter in our vineyards this year from uneven weather at bloom and thus expected a smaller crop than the last two vintages. Summer was mild and then August came full of sound and fury with heat, tropical thunder and lightning storms resulting in the current wildfire challenges — undoubtedly propelling harvest forward sooner than anticipated. Michael Beaulac, winemaker at Pine Ridge, reports he will likely harvest some hillside Cabernet Sauvignon off their property this week. At Chimney Rock, we have not brought in any red grapes, but our Merlot blocks are getting close.

“Our thoughts are with those who have already faced the fires head on and wishing safety to all as we face these challenges. We have been through it these past few years, and we will rock it again because we are ‘Napa strong!’”

Mount Veeder – Lorenzo Dalla Brea, Hess Collection — “Extreme hot weather experienced last week promoted veraison on Mount Veeder, with clusters of red varieties now being completely colored. Crews are moving through the blocks for a final cluster thinning pass, with the goal of fine tuning the crop load in order to achieve the best quality balance. For the red varieties, we are still pretty far away from harvest. White varieties are now tested for sugar content. With Brix ranging between 20 to 22, we are still at least a couple of weeks away from the first pick of mountain Chardonnay, as we usually open the harvest season for the white varieties in mid to late September.”

Oak Knoll District — Jon Ruel, Trefethen Vineyards & Winery — “Harvest got off to an early start in the OKD with growers picking the first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wines during the first week of August. Anna Hickey of Rodgers Vineyards mentioned “really nice flavor concentration” and Chardonnay yields being a bit lower than last year. Picking for still wines started shortly thereafter. Steve Matthiasson said that most of his blocks made it through the heat just fine, they are picking daily and he is “really happy with the flavors.” Steve Moulds suggests his Cabernet will also be early, given signs of seed lignification. At Trefethen, we are actively picking Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. We all hope the fires are brought under control soon!”

Coombsville — Tom Farella, Farella Vineyard — “The harvest of 2020 is already memorable with barely a grape in the hopper. After a blistering heat wave coupled with tropical weather and capped off with lightning fires, things have calmed down with variable smokey skies. We are enjoying the bay breezes which are eking out more favorable conditions. For us, our Sauvignon Blanc pick is imminent – right on time, somewhere around Labor Day most years. There are traces of veraison still in our Merlot but it always catches up and tends to come in before Cabernet by a few weeks.”

Carneros — Christopher Hyde, Hyde Vineyards — “This season has been challenging since the start. Coldest and longest frost since 2008 (perhaps worse). The drought has left us with dry soils, and vines that have struggled in some cases, making for decreased yields. There was some rain during Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bloom, leaving small berries that were dried in some cases by the heat. Chardonnay yields are down over 50% in many cases, and Pinot Noir at least 15% below average. Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet are holding a decent-sized crop, though the long heat has dehydrated the fruit somewhat. The weather is finally cooling off, which is a huge relief. As for the fires, we have been fortunate here in Carneros, where there is some air movement.”

Watch Now: The first 7 hours of the Hennessey Fire

For real-time harvest photos and updates, visit the Napa Valley Vintners’ Harvest 2019 website at

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