"A little early and a little light," is the way Hugh Davies assessed the 2022 growing season as Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga harvested its first grapes on Wednesday, Aug. 3.
"The yield will be a little bit lighter than normal," Davies, second-generation proprietor of Schramsberg, said. "And we're a little bit earlier than usual. But someone just told us they've finished harvest in Texas."
Schramsberg brought 14 tons of Pinot Noir fruit from the Richburg Vineyard in the Bayview District of Carneros, destined for their sparkling wines.
It's Schramsberg's tradition for the winery team to gather to toast the new grapes and saber a couple of bottles to pour over the new grapes. Speaking in Spanish and English, Davies shared his thoughts on the season, noting that the bottle line crew wasn't among the group. Even as Schramsberg starts this year's harvest, they were at work still bottling wines from last year, owing to supply chain issues that had delayed their shipments of bottles. "Usually we are done by now," Davies said.
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Despite the on-going drought and ever-present threats of wildfires, Davies said he's optimistic for the 2022 harvest.
Fire prevention has become a year-round concern, especially after the 2020 Glass Fire, which surrounded Schramsberg and left them without power for 77 days, during which they depended on a generator to keep operations going.
At the worst of it, Davies said, "I slept about a hour a day for seven days, but that is what you do."
Fortunately, Davies said, they had mostly completed their harvest of grapes for sparkling wines when the Glass Fire began on Sept. 27, 2020, but they lost 90% of their estate grapes for still wines. "Some of it, we didn't bother to pick."
This year, he said, a combination of goats and workers have been clearing underbrush around the winery, which sits among old forests on Diamond Mountain. "We seem to be in a pretty good defensive position," he said. "And we haven't had a fire for two years."
"It's been a good couple of years for sparkling wines," Davies concluded, "and, knock wood, we'll charge ahead into another good year."
Harvest at Honig
Generally, sparkling wine producers, wanting higher levels of acidity in their grapes, launch the local harvest, but this year the first Napa Valley winery first on record to bring in grapes is Honig Vineyard in Rutherford, who harvested grapes for their Sauvignon Blanc on Aug. 2.
"The fruit came from our grower partner Gordon Family Ranch in Gordon Valley, which is located in the southeast area of the Napa Valley Appellation," Honig winemaker Kristin Belair wrote in an email.
"The two blocks that were harvested (on Aug. 1) are older blocks, planted in 1984 and 2005. These are typically low-yielding and our first blocks in. Harvest start dates are generally between the first and third week of August, with 2021 and 2022 being the earliest.
"Late spring colder weather and the late spring rains after a dry January and February were early factors shaping the growing season," Belair added. "The recent, steady, onshore flow has given us the moderate daytime temperatures and cool nights that create the perfect environment for a stunning vintage.
"Our vineyard samples from the last couple of days indicate that it will be seven to 10 days before the next round will be ready to harvest," she added.
To the west
For Dan Fishman, winemaker at Donum Estate in Carneros, which lies in both Napa and Sonoma counties, harvest began even earlier. On Aug. 1, they picked 2.5 tons of Dijon 115 Pinot Noir from the Donum Home ranch on Ramal Road. These vines were planted in 2016.
"Shortly after we finished picking rain began to fall," he said. "It's always nice to get a pick in before rain, although it's usually the last pick, not the first. Although rain on Aug. 1 is very unusual, every little bit helps at this stage of drought, and it won't have any negative effects on this year's vintage."
The grapes are destined for the Donum Blanc de Noir, the sparkling wine Donum first made in 2019. "(We) have been creeping the pick earlier each vintage to try to capture a little more natural acidity," Fishman said. "The vines in this block are young and Dijon 115 ripens quickly, so we've found that we need to get started really early to make the kind of bright, structured sparkling wine we are looking for.
"After the 2020 vintage we have learned not to count any tonnage until the fruit is in the cellar door, but so far 2022 is off to a great start," Fishman said. "Yields look about average, with nice small clusters. The mornings have been foggy, more like I remember when I started making wine in Sonoma, so we are hoping to get little bit of a slower ripening curve this year, yielding more balanced wines."
Even further west, at Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma County, Harry Hansen said he plans to begin picking grapes on Aug. 8, as he marks his 40th harvest, as well as the 40th for the winery where he started his career. Hansen went on to work at Edna Valley and Sterling wineries before returning to Gloria Ferrer as senior vice president of winemaking and winegrowing in 2022.
"This year marks my second harvest back with the team," he said. "There are areas of concern that our team is keeping a close eye on, including fire and drought. We are expecting a quick harvest, with about the same crop yield as last year."
From the valley floor
On the still wine front, the steady weather, and expectation of a lower yield of smaller berries with concentrated flavors are reasons for optimism, said Jeff Cole, winemaker at Sullivan Rutherford Estate, which lies, geographically, at the heart of the Napa Valley, on the valley floor. They are on track to begin harvesting their red wine grapes, as usual, in September, Cole said.
"I know when winemakers are asked about the harvest they always say things look fantastic, but this year they really do. Of course," he added, "at one point 2020 was looking pretty good too."
Cole was one of few winemakers who took a chance and made wine in 2020, but, he explained, Sullivan Rutherford champions Merlot, and they had harvested much of their estate crop before the Glass Fire began. "If nothing else I thought it would be an opportunity to learn," he said.
As he discussed conditions in 2022, he opened a bottle of his 2020 Merlot. A striking wine, rich and balanced, like the coming harvest season it holds a lot of promise.