Matt Reid

Matt Reid is winemaker at Benessere Winery in St. Helena. 

Summer has officially begun, and Napa Valley vineyards are looking gorgeous, with full canopies and full clusters. Let’s look a little more closely to see where things stand with the 2014 growing season.

At Benessere, on the north side of the St Helena AVA just south of Bale Lane, the shoots are long but no longer have actively growing tips. The grape clusters are all still green and the berries hard, but the grapes are also relatively large. This indicates that the first stage of berry growth, cell division, is near its end.

Veraison, when wine-grape skins begin to soften and change colors, typically occurs in late July, but this year is right around the corner. Soon, the berries will begin to turn green to golden for the white varieties and green to purple or blue for the red. They will continue to grow, but via cell enlargement rather than cell division. All this at the onset of summer.

How does this compare to a “normal” season (that never happens), and what does it indicate about this year’s harvest?

Every grower and winemaker is concerned about the drought affecting the Southwestern United States. At my Calistoga home, this rain year (July 1-June 30) I have recorded 21.53 inches of rain, compared to 31 inches last year, 28 inches the year before and a historic average of more than 40 inches per year. Fortunately, 19 of our 21.5 inches fell between February and April, filling the soil profile as well as irrigation and frost-control ponds.

The late rains let growers relax for a spell, and the absence of significant frost events kept those reservoirs full. At Benessere, we used our frost sprinklers only once this year. Nevertheless, bud break was early, and we remain ahead of the typical growth cycle.

There is talk of the California harvest being six weeks early, but that seems more likely for inland areas than for us here in Napa Valley. Most growers here are projecting a harvest that is on schedule with last year. Still, we are leafing (to expose ripening grapes to sunlight) less than usual this year in anticipation of a late summer heat wave. If that comes, the grapes will appreciate having a little extra shade.

At Benessere, we have not yet irrigated, and we expect to begin irrigating select blocks, on 101-14 rootstock, in July, and other blocks a bit later. The grape shoots have nearly finished growing, and we will soon begin thinning clusters to achieve more even ripening. Most vineyards, including Benessere, cultivated early to reduce water competition from cover crop and weeds.

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In most ways, the 2014 growing season has been ideal. For the most part, temperatures have been warm but not excessively hot, and humidity has been low, reducing mildew pressure in the upper Napa Valley.

What does all this mean for the quality of this year’s grapes? While we can never know what nature has in store for us, if trends continue we will have an excellent harvest that comes in on the early side. 2012 and 2013 were both large harvests of high quality fruit, and 2014 looks to be the same. At Benessere, Sangiovese and Merlot have set particularly large clusters. We will focus our thinning on those varieties to be sure each cluster has the foliar support it needs to ripen and that the clusters are not all atop one another. Other varieties appear to have normal to slightly heavy crop loads.

Now is a great time to take a walk in a vineyard. If you do, see if you can spot the first sign of color.

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Matt Reid is winemaker at Benessere Winery and a member of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, which provides monthly updates for the Napa Valley Register.