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Rain in Napa as harvest kicks off

Napa winemakers are hoping for a 'Bordeaux-like' vintage, as the harvest gets into its stride with rain and its hazards a constant presence.

Rain clouds over Napa (image: veezzle.com)

Some 3.8cm has fallen between 3 and 6 October, with all the attendant problems of rot, mildew and dilution.

While some are playing down the worry – it ‘shouldn’t be a major setback,’ Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson Vineyards said, ‘It will cause delay rather than be a declaration of disaster’ – all winemakers are aware of the danger of rain at harvest time.

‘The only true risk of the rain is dilution or rot. Rot will only have an impact on thin-skinned varietals like Chardonnay, not so much on thicker-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon,’ Jean Hoefliger, who sources fruit throughout the valley for the Alpha Omega Winery in Rutherford, said.

He added that the later-ripening varietals might have to be picked not fully ripe.

There was ‘frantic picking of early ripening whites and reds’, Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards in Oak Knoll said. He brought in all his Zinfandel before the rains hit.

Others are looking at the sky with increasing nervousness. Shafer Vineyards winemaker Elias Fernandez said he is grateful their Hillside Cabernet is in, but admits only 30% of their Carneros Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay has been picked.

‘The remainder of the crop will be at Mother Nature’s mercy,’ he said. The Shafer team is removing leaves to create air circulation to dry the grapes and prevent rotting.

Mike Honig, of Honig Vineyard in Rutherford, who buys grapes across Napa said it was ‘the latest start to harvest in the past 30 years,’ and that ‘most of the Carneros white grapes still hanging after this storm are going to end up on the ground.’

Throughout the growing season, as in Europe, weather patterns have been unusual, characterised by coolness with no heat spikes. Rain was also a significant concern in the spring and early summer.

Spring was wetter than normal and an early June storm deposited 12cm during the critical time of fruit set. For many vineyards this led to shatter, or unevenness in the fruit set and loss of fruit. Others fared much better.

At Roy Estate in Oak Knoll, for example, owner Shirley Roy said, 70% of the crop was lost, while Hoefliger said ‘Some vineyards, like parts of To Kalon, have no crop at all and others, like Stagecoach, have normal crop.’

For all the pessimism, overall winemakers seem pleased with the quality of the fruit that is coming in.

As Terry Hall at Napa Valley Vintners said, ‘it’s exceptional fruit so far, and everyone wishes there was a lot more of it.’

At Grgich Hills, Ivo Jeramaz, vice president of vineyards and production, said, ‘While there are fewer grapes this year, the early rains have insured grapes are not dehydrated, which increases the total tonnage.’

In conclusion, 2011 should mean low yields, high acidity, lower-than-normal alcohol, good balance, and ageworthiness.

As Phelps said, ‘It’s very Bordeaux-like.’

Written by Cheryl Lincoln in Napa, and Adam Lechmere

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