Drenched in an unprecedented amount of rain during the first months of the year, the 2017 bud break — the commencement of the growing season — took place in mid-March.
In grape growing, the start doesn’t give an indication to the finish. It is what happens in between March through August that truly influences harvest.
During this time frame in 2017, farmers experienced a range of conditions including full soil profiles, healthy vine growth, rain, heat, hail, and spectacular sunshine.
To better understand the 2017 growing season and how it will be reflected in the upcoming harvest, three Napa Valley Grapegrowers members offered answers to a few questions.
They are Meaghan Becker, general manager at Quintessa; Garrett Buckland, partner in Premiere Viticultural Services and president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Rory Williams, assistant vineyard manager and assistant winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery.
To keep up to date on the 2017 harvest, visit www.napagrowers.org.
Any predication on when harvest will start?
Meaghan Becker: This is always a tough one. Based on what I’m hearing around the valley, I think white varieties will come in 7 to 10 days later than last year, with reds following shortly after. For Quintessa, my guess would be mid-September for cabernet sauvignon.
This winter brought heavy rain compared the past five years. How has it effected the growing season?
Rory Williams: Grapevines are closely attuned to the progress of rainfall over the winter and base their decision to start growing upon their measurement of soil temperature and soil moisture. Thanks to the heavy rains, we had high soil moisture this spring, which slightly delayed the start of the growing season compared to the previous year. That soil moisture carried through the spring into the summer, and the vines showed rapid, lush vegetative growth that required careful management. Overall, the vines seem very happy to have received the rain and are well prepared to carry on into harvest.
What are some of the fundamentals to growing quality grapes in 2017?
Meaghan Becker: Like many things in life, timing is everything. This begins with having a great vineyard team in place that is well-trained and ready to go. With that foundation in place, it becomes a dance between man and Mother Nature — a careful balance between having a clear farming plan and remaining responsive to growing conditions. This year, we have all had to hit reset on our expectations as the season has been a significant departure from the last three years. Staying on top of the robust canopy growth has been a big focus so far.
Tending to the vine is a costly endeavor. Did you see any increases?
Meaghan Becker: At Quintessa, we are seeing beautiful full canopies and healthy vines around the estate. On the flip side, this has required extra passes of canopy management to keep the vines in balance, which naturally leads to higher costs. Great wines start in the vineyards, so we see this as an investment in making world-class wines.
What were some of the sustainable practices you relied on?
Rory Williams: At Frog’s Leap, we have farmed our vineyards organically and without irrigation for nearly 30 years. We rely upon winter cover crops like vetch, peas, oats and mustard to prevent erosion, build soil structure, and provide nutrients to the vines for the growing season. In heavy rainfall years, we pay especially close attention to our spring management of these cover crops, avoiding soil compaction while ensuring that the vines have enough moisture to last them through the dry months.
Are there any big surprises this year?
Rory Williams: Mother Nature always likes to remind us that she is in charge, and the multiple extreme heat events we’ve had this summer have been unwelcome. Vines enjoy hanging around outside in 107-degree heat about as much as humans do. Fortunately, the high moisture levels in the soil have helped buffer the effect of these events upon the vines, preventing major damage. The sudden, rare hail in June was no fun at all; while our own vineyards were ultimately not affected, I know others were to varying degrees.
In general, what is the fruit profile of this vintage?
Garrett Buckland: We’re seeing average to above average yields in almost all varieties. While we’ve dealt with some extreme weather conditions this year, temperatures at the beginning of the growing season — an important time for setting the stage for development — were relatively moderate and stable. As a result, this year, we expect really great phenolic profiles with the ability to moderate runaway brix.
Were you able to adopt any of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ new best practices?
Rory Williams: We removed a little over an acre of vineyard this year and adopted a set of best practices from the NVG’s Vineyard Burning Task Force, in order to process the pulled vines. After removing the vines in the fall, we spent a few minutes placing tarps over our vine piles, which protected the center of the piles from the heavy winter rains. Come spring, we used the NVG’s recommendations regarding proper pile lighting, which resulted in a completely smokeless burn. All told, the changes cost us almost no effort and allowed us to eliminate obnoxious smoke from the process.
Did this growing season teach you anything?
Garrett Buckland: This growing season reaffirmed the fact that the timing of our operations is one the most important elements to get right every vintage. Vineyard work is truly time-sensitive. For any given practice we employ in the vineyard, we may have a two-week window to really affect positive change on vine growth and berry development. For instance, timely canopy work was critical this year. This is how we set the stage for a high-quality 2017 crop.