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Margrit Mondavi

Margrit Mondavi tastes newly harvested petit verdot grapes with Father Francisco Blandon, of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Napa at the conclusion of Tuesday’s blessing of the grapes at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. L. Pierce Carson/Register

Blessing the grapes at the Robert Mondavi Winery has signaled the start of the crush at the flagship winery for more than four decades.

But this year was the latest ever for scheduling the annual ceremony and the first time it coincided with the launch of the red grape harvest.

Conducted in the To Kalon cellar by Father Francisco Blandon, of Napa’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Tuesday’s ceremony combined devout and secular tradition.

And it also featured an element of suspense, as in what tack will Mother Nature take in bringing the 2011 harvest to a hopefully suitable close.

Everyone hereabouts knows the grape harvest is late this year. But it has not been widely disseminated that as much as 80 to 85 percent of this year’s crop is still hanging on the vine. In some cases, like Mondavi, it’s closer to 90 percent.

And Genevieve Janssens, Mondavi’s director of winemaking, is admittedly nervous.

“This is our latest harvest,” Janssens said over a Mexican-style lunch served to employees and media following the blessing ceremony. “It’s at least a week later than last year (which, at the time, was considered one of the valley’s longest growing seasons). We’ve never harvested sauvignon blanc so late.”

But the sauvignon blanc is all in, the veteran winemaker advised, noting that picking of this variety didn’t begin until mid-September. Usually, the Mondavi sauvignon blanc is all in by Labor Day.

Janssens said sauvignon blanc tonnage is down by about 30 percent over a so-called normal year, attributed to heavy early June rains that causes poor fruit set, or shatter.

“The chardonnay’s okay,” she added. However, the forecast of rain early next week has Janssens and her viticultural team mapping out a harvest strategy for bringing in this particular varietal.

“Even drizzle is not good for (thin-skinned) chardonnay,” she advised. 

“But a little rain won’t affect the Bordeaux reds (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and malbec).”

The fifth “Bordeaux red,” petit verdot from the To Kalon vineyard, was the variety crushed on Tuesday. The petit verdot, used as a blending agent in the winery’s cabernet sauvignon — much as one might use salt and pepper to season a dish — was in “perfect condition,” Janssens told the group of employees gathered for the blessing ceremony. That was good news as a large percentage of the 2010 petit verdot crop suffered severe sunburn in 2010 and was only sparingly used in the blend.

“We starting the pinot noir harvest today,” she added. In addition, some of the winery’s merlot was also on Tuesday’s picking schedule. “We’re started slowly with chardonnay.”

Janssens is expecting a healthy crop  and normal tonnage for merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc.  “The cabernet sauvignon crop may be a little lighter — but no more  than 10 percent.”

She expects Mondavi’s red grape harvest to continue through the end of October, perhaps even into early November. 

“The sun’s just not strong enough to complete (grape) maturation,” Janssens maintained. “I’m hoping for Indian summer ... that the  rains are delayed.”

On Tuesday, Margrit Mondavi recounted her late husband’s excitement with his first crush in 1966 and the blessing of the grapes ceremony.

“Now, 46 years later, we are coming together again for this blessing,” she noted. “And Bob is still watching every move.”

Maybe Bob could have a talk with Mother Nature about keeping the rains away until at least all the chardonnay is in.

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