With words of three winemakers across Napa and Sonoma counties, we were able to watch this year’s grape harvest (from afar). Spotlight on today’s hard work with varying grapes, soil and conditions to create the next release. Will they be pleased with the quality of the 2022 vintage? Let’s check it out.
Typically, harvest in Napa and Sonoma counties happens August through late October – sometimes early November. Can you walk us through your day-to-day during this time?
Zach Long of Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood, Sonoma Co.: Harvest is chaos but in the best kind of way. The hours are long; everything requires constant cleaning, but the smell of Sauvignon Blanc fermenting in the cellar just charges your soul!
Robin Akhurst of Clos Pegase in Calistoga, Napa Co.: [The] days start very early. I’ll walk the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma starting from the highest priority blocks; tasting grapes; checking canopies, and collecting samples for analysis. Later, I’ll walk through the cellar; checking ferments, and discussing the grapes that are coming in.
Glenn Hugo of Girard Winery in Calistoga, Napa Co. and B.R. Cohn Winery in Glen Ellen, Sonoma Co.: As fruit is coming in, we’re also busy managing the various fermentations already occurring. This includes the arduous taste of pump-overs—a critical part of red wine fermentation that develops the wines color, structure, and complexity of the wine. We continue this alongside other tasks such as Brix and temperature monitoring; press wines that are done with primary fermentation and barreling down wines for the next stage of the wines’ journey.
Akhurst: Every person who works harvest has a role to play, and we are lucky to have a team who are experts at what they do.
Long: To know how to react in the winery, you need to spend time in the vineyards. Know how it will all begin.
Can you describe the soil of grape-growing areas in which your vineyards lay?
Hugo: Both Napa (for Girard) and Sonoma (for B.R. Cohn) are diverse climate and soil types throughout the region. This offers us the opportunity to source a variety of different characteristics in the grapes we source which, in turn, allows for complexity in our winemaking.
Akhurst: Clos Pegase has two main vineyards: Mitsukos in Carneros is clay loam and sedimentary due to its proximity to the San Pablo Bay. Tenma in Calistoga is volcanic, gravelly and has good drainage; [it’s] where our Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes from.
Long: Kunde’s footprint ranges from the center of the Sonoma Valley and 320’ above sea level up to our Moon Mountain District vineyards spanning an elevation of 600’ up to nearly 1200’ above sea level. Our dominant soil is Red Clay Loam #2; unique to our region and heavily influenced by iron from volcanic layers. Due to [both] iron and pH, our soils can cause nutrient uptake stress on our vines but, perhaps, helps create some of the flavor intensity we find in our grapes.
Red varieties take a bit longer to reach full maturation. When are you expected to collect and crush Cabernet Sauvignon?
Akhurst: This year is a bit different. Harvest was compressed due to a heat spike expected to bring in all Cabernet by the start of October which is earlier than typical.
Long: Typically, on the Kunde Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the month of October. It has over the last decade become almost a point of pride that we don’t pick Cabernet in the month of September, and somehow, Mother Nature seems to be in on the game. We experienced one-hundred-degree temperatures for a week during the second week of September, and yet, rain and cold temperatures the week following allowed the vines to recover, and again, we found ourselves picking in October.
Hugo: We receive Cabernet throughout September and October, occasionally into November. A variety of factors influence when Cabernet is ready to pick—soil types, microclimates, clones, rootstock, trellis types, and row orientation. [They] contribute to when different vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon – in different parts of Napa and Sonoma – are ready.
With heat waves becoming more common during harvest, due to changing climate, are there any steps taken to prevent dry-out or raisins?
Hugo: We do our best to keep the vines healthy with watering and [make] decisions with how we leaf the vines to allow or limit the amount of sun exposure. In some cases, Mother Nature wins, and we must sacrifice [or] sort out any raisins that might have occurred.
Akhurst: We maintain fuller canopies for shade and irrigate (if it is needed) to keep the berries hydrated.
Long: While I have seen changes in our climate, the wind seems to be the most influential on our vineyards. The vines tend to get through a week or two of one-hundred-degree temperatures without significant stress as we still don’t tend to stay HOT for more than five to seven days. A cooling period after allows the vines to rehydrate and the grapes typically follow suit.
How does dry farming benefit the vines?
Long: Dry farming essentially allows the vines to find their own water supply. While the volume of grapes produced by a single vine may not match the higher volume expected from irrigation, the natural stress can create amazing intensity in the finished wine. One potential downside is that drought years may affect production not only in the year that it happens but in the year following since the buds (from which those clusters will form) are generated in May of the year before.
What is your biggest fear during harvest?
Akhurst: We have 150 separate vineyard blocks in Napa and Sonoma that need to be checked throughout harvest, and I don’t want to forget one of them by accident.
Hugo: Weather [and] climate challenges including fear of fires.
Long: Our Estate was directly influenced by fires in 2017 and 2020, so let’s just say there are those hot days with wind that my skin crawls.
What do you think the 2022 vintage will be remembered for? How will it compare to past releases?
Akhurst: I think ‘Harvest 2022’ will be remembered as a beautiful, even growing season that ended in a compressed, early harvest [thanks] to the heat spike mid-September. Yields will be lower as we sort out berries that were heat-affected, and we are still experiencing drought conditions.
Hugo: …a record-breaking heatwave during an ongoing drought, yet, we still see great quality in the fruit. Just wish we could have more of it! It appears we will also have some record low yields for this year (another factor of drought conditions).
Long: Volumes are low, but typically means quality and intensity will be high. It is looking very similar to last year frankly, good juice, just need more of it!
From planting to plucking, summarize the 2022 season. In what condition were the resulting grapes?
Long: Pruning from January through the end of March was quick this year due to the lesser growth the vines showed over the 2021 vintage (with less lateral shoots and smaller tendrils). We did have about eleven frost days during spring – two days of which were bad, but we did run frost protection and avoided most of the impact – there were neighbors that were not so lucky. Flower sets from May to June were clean, but we just didn’t have the cluster count that we would like, and the bunches were lesser in size. Random rain events pushed through summer (which is rare) but of little consequence to the vines. Harvest began the third week of August and mid-September.
For travelers: Why is “Cabernet Season” the best time to visit California Wine Country?
Hugo: Visitors can watch the grapes come in, be crushed, and sent off to start making wine. That [experience] only lasts for a few months. There’s just an atmosphere of energy and excitement.
Akhurst: There’s so much action in the vineyards and cellar. You might even have a chance to taste some freshly pressed juice!
Long: To a winemaker, the smell of pomace piles; spent stems and grapes permeate the air as a part of harvest – another one put to bed.
Hugo: Every harvest brings something different and that’s the thrill of it.
Photo Credits: Kevin Lynne (B.R. Cohn, Clos Pegase, Girard) & M.J. Wickham (Kunde)
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