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Early harvest

Putting the 2015 vintage in perspective, this block of cabernet at Trefethen was picked earlier than ever before, on Sept. 16, a full three weeks earlier than last year.

Jon Ruel photo

The 2015 harvest is nearing a historically early end, with some growers bringing in all their late-ripening cabernet sauvignon by the end of September.

“The unusually early harvest coupled with erratic weather and below-normal crop levels brought some unique challenges to the vintage,” wrote Kristin Belair of Honig Vineyard & Winery, where picking was expected to wrap up on Wednesday. “Nevertheless we have beautiful wines coming out of the fermenters and are looking forward to breathing sighs of relief and smiling happy smiles as we toast to crossing the finish line to another successful harvest.”

Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery was less optimistic. He said unusual weather conditions have stressed the vines, producing a “very small crop” with “exorbitant” picking costs.

“Even with indications of exceptional quality (great color, flavors and chemistry) most of us will be happy to see the end of this harvest,” Smith wrote.

Here’s the next installment of the 2015 harvest report, organized by American Viticultural Areas:

Calistoga — Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena — “Another one in the books. What a whirlwind. As our last box made its way across the scale Saturday morning, I felt that familiar emotional cocktail of elation, relief, and a little disappointment knowing that things were coming to an end. While there are a few scattered blocks still hanging, especially on the deep valley floor soils and to the west near the base of Diamond Mountain, compost spreaders have taken over for bin trailers in most of the AVA. In tank, the wines are as expected: dense, rich, and concentrated. A lot of potential.”

Howell Mountain — Pat Stotesbery, Ladera Vineyards — “The weather has been nearly perfect and most everyone has picked to some degree: from 50 percent to totally done. Interestingly, lots of folks are slowing it all down for a bit. Not just the notorious late pickers but the majority. The weather has everyone doing the ‘wait and get it better’ routine. Having said that, these same people generally expect to be done in the next 10 days or so. It is down to cabernet and is now a question of flavors, not sugars.”

Diamond Mountain District — Dawnine Dyer, Dyer Vineyards — “Lovely fall weather, more typical of Diamond Mountain harvests than that of the first half of September, has brought favorable conditions for harvest to both The Vineyardist and Constant Diamond Mountain, two of the highest elevation vineyards in the AVA. Both will be picking small lots or ‘micro picks’ as Dirk Fulton calls them, over the next two weeks. Diamond Creek is working their way through their diverse blocks and anticipates finishing the second week of October. Phil Steinshriber is comparing the quality (alas, not the quantity!) to 2013. Yum.”

Chiles Valley District — Alexander Eisele, Volker Eisele Family Estate — “The harvest is winding down in our district. Only a few isolated lots of cabernet sauvignon are left to be picked. All other varieties are in. 2015 will go down in history as the earliest harvest ever. It will leave us plenty of time to prepare for a hopefully normal winter with plenty of rainfall. The nights are getting cool. It is clear that fall is here.”

Spring Mountain District — Stuart Smith, Smith-Madrone Winery — “Most, but not all of us have finished. Vineyard 7 & 8 will be hard at it this week and next. York Creek and Pride still have several weeks to go. The early bud push, drought, and recurring heat with low humidity have been very hard on our vines and it shows. Because of the very small crop, picking costs have been exorbitant. It’s not been any easier on those of us who tend the vines or make the wine. Even with indications of exceptional quality (great color, flavors and chemistry) most of us will be happy to see the end of this harvest.”

St. Helena — Matt Reid, Benessere Vineyards — “The second September heatwave increased the harvest pace. Benessere picked its last St. Helena AVA grapes on Sept. 22, with Moscato Canelli destined to become a dessert wine. Other Appellation St. Helena member wineries report that the few unpicked blocks of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot are expected to come in soon. As we put this vintage to bed we can confidently say that although yields are down, color, flavor and concentration are excellent.”

Rutherford — Kristin Belair, Honig Vineyard & Winery — “Dave Bartolucci, whose family has been farming in Napa Valley for four generations, starting in the 1920s, told me last week that his dad, Bill Bartolucci, remembers only one harvest that finished by the end of September. There are several harvest milestones that we keep track of and look forward to, like ticking off miles in a marathon: First grapes in, last whites in, first tank to go dry, first reds in, first red pressed, last white tank to go dry, last red grapes in, last red tank pressed, last red barrel filled. It is a familiar cycle that repeats vintage after vintage. What is not familiar is last red grapes in by the end of September and last white tank to go dry before the end of September. Our last grapes for the season are scheduled to arrive at Honig Wednesday, Sept. 30. The unusually early harvest coupled with erratic weather and below-normal crop levels brought some unique challenges to the vintage. Nevertheless we have beautiful wines coming out of the fermenters and are looking forward to breathing sighs of relief and smiling happy smiles as we toast to crossing the finish line to another successful harvest.”

Oakville — Molly Hodgins, Flora Springs Winery — “This week we plan to wrap up harvest in Oakville and all the other AVAs we grow fruit in, too. We will be picking our last two Oakville cabernet sauvignon blocks on Thursday, Oct. 1. The grapes are tasty and sweet, but canopies are starting to tire after a couple of September heat spikes. We are not alone in our timing either. Natalie Jure Buckland of Opus One said that as of the end of last week they had brought in around 70 percent of their fruit.”

Yountville — Anthony Bell, Bell Wine Cellars — “We’re close to the end of our 2015 harvest here in Yountville – for several weeks, picking lights have been parked near various vineyards, ready for night harvest. They’ve all disappeared. Our chardonnay is almost dry, and the merlot comes off the vine tomorrow. We’ll be finished before the end of September, and things are wrapping up nicely.”

Atlas Peak — Jan Krupp, Stagecoach Vineyards — “Harvest continues on Atlas Peak at full throttle. Many cabernet vineyards in our appellation are yielding a painfully low 1 ton an acre. Quality levels are high for most but not all vineyards and vineyard blocks this year.”

Stags Leap District — Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock Winery — “It was a wild harvest ride in the Stags Leap District again this week. Michael Baldacci, president at Baldacci winery, reports that all of their SLD fruit is in as of Friday. Jeff Owens, winemaker at Odette Estate, reports that they are finishing up next week and seconded the low yields, but also is impressed with the quality of this vintage. Jeff shared, ‘I’m seeing crazy color, density and concentration, with beautiful fruit purity and focus. I’m really excited to see how these wines are going to develop in barrel.’ Our friends at Silverado Vineyards report that their last SLD fruit was harvested on Sept. 19. Winemaker Jon Emmerich reports that he likes the structure and fruit component of their early wines. At Chimney Rock, we are crushing our last cabernet of 2015 today. Our yields are also lower than average, but we are equally enchanted with the berry size, fruit flavors, color and concentration in fermenter. It is time to bury ourselves in our cellar until all our wines are put to barrel.”

Mount Veeder — Sander Scheer, The Hess Collection Winery — “Harvest continues at a brisk pace this week. The last of the malbec lots are coming in now. Seeing the weather balance out over the last week has been helpful as we continue to put together the puzzle that is harvest. There are a few days over 90 degrees in the forecast, which is less of a concern than morning temperatures dipping into the upper 30s. Once that happens the vines up here really begin to shut down. Our vineyard winterization efforts are also happening. Seeding cover crop for erosion control is a regular thing up here in late September.”

Oak Knoll District — Jon Ruel, Trefethen Vineyards & Winery — “The official arrival of autumn has brought warm days and cool nights to a valley that is already mostly picked out. Here at Trefethen, the harvest continues, but not at the hectic pace of weeks past, as the remaining cabernet and petit verdot are enjoying the fine weather. The winery is still bustling with activity as the active fermentations are pumped over, punched down and pressed off. This year’s wines will reveal their true personalities only after aging in barrel but, based on what we have tasted so far, we are very excited about 2015.”

Coombsville — Tom Farella, Farella Vineyard — “A season of extremes — cold nights following hot days, a little cool rain sandwiched between heat spells, coastal fog under a layer of monsoonal moisture. The cumulative effect of the drought seemed to really emerge in the final stretch of ripening, which made me worry that the vines would have a tough time getting to a nice balanced finish. It was the opposite, though. Thank goodness for all the cool nights, but everything we brought in was in good shape with decent acidity and only a few areas where field sorting was needed. The color and texture of all of our lots is amazing and we are very excited, though the crop was down 30 to 40 percent in our vineyard.”

Carneros — Lee Hudson, Hudson Vineyards – “It was another quiet week in Carneros as the 2015 harvest winds down. We picked delicious syrah, cabernet franc and merlot with less than 10 percent to go. Quality is running high and yields very low.”

Wild Horse Valley —John Newmeyer, Heron Lake Vineyard – “Examining the records for the past 30 years, it appears that the 2015 vintage was among the smallest 10 percent (poor “set” in May?) and also that it was among the earliest 10 percent (climate change?). We’re glad for the latter, as everything is barreled-down and there’s much less work to do ahead of us.”

For real-time harvest photos and updates, visit the Napa Valley Vintners’ Harvest 2015 website at


St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.

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