Unusually favorable weather this summer, following a cold, wet spring, has left Jim Verhey and a number of other Napa County grape growers feeling good about the wine-making prospects, if not the size, of this year’s crop.
In addition to managing his own vineyard, Verhey is CEO of Premiere Viticultural Services in Napa, Calif.
“Everyone I talked with at the end of August was comfortable with the way the whites have come along, and are very optimistic about the reds,” he says. “But, the consensus was that quantity is definitely down this year.
“We were very nervous early in the year from all the rain at bloom, and had an extremely difficult time getting control of the vines after bloom because of all the water in the soil. But, thanks to the excellent weather we’ve had since mid-June — daytime temperatures in the high 70s to mid-80s and nights cooling to the mid- to low 50s, and no heat spikes — we’ve been able to get the vines back in balance. They’re motoring right along; in fact, one of my friends who has a modest size but high-end winery, is very enthusiastic about the whites because of the summer weather. If it stays this way, the quality of our grapes will be very, very good again, like last year.”
This assumes that the mildew some growers are seeing doesn’t get out of hand and botrytis doesn’t become a problem, especially in the white varieties with their tighter clusters.
Crop loads at the end of August reflect the wide variation in shatter this year, which ranged from moderate to significant, due to adverse weather during bloom, Verhey notes.
“If your vines went through bloom during the really cold rainstorms in late May and early June, you might have really been nailed.’
He also suspects that pruning practices affected the amount of shatter — this year he lost about 5 percent of his cane-pruned Sauvignon Blanc to shatter. By contrast, just across the road, shatter loss in another grower’s spur-pruned Sauvignon Blanc vineyards totaled more than 50 percent shatter.
It’s too early to test the reds for harvest; however, sampling of the whites shows sugar levels are increasing, he says. But, pH values are still on the low side.
“We hope acid levels will come down, but they may not fall to last year’s levels,” Verhey says. “If so, the whites may be a little brighter vintage this year. Last year, with the lower sugar levels and good acid and pH readings, we were able to harvest grapes with good flavor, maturity and chemistry at low sugar levels.”
Often in Napa County, the harvest of the white varieties rolls into the red harvest. This year, Verhey expects growers will have two separate harvests. He’s looking for the whites to be ready in September and early October, with a two- to three-week delay before growers begin picking the reds in late October or early November
Currently, both white and red varieties are at least a week behind usual in maturity, he says. But, that could change.
“I’m worried that most wineries will assume that, since the crop is seven to 10 days late at the start of September, things will stay that way,” Verhey says. “But with continued good weather, along with the light crop load and good canopy, we might see more rapid accumulation of sugar than we would in a year with normal weather and a larger crop load. So, I’m telling winery clients to think Sept. 10 to Sept 20 as the start of the white harvest.”
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vineyards are maturing more slowly, he notes. In fact, some red vineyards in Napa County, especially those on hillsides, just recently finished veraison.
“It’s very hard to tell what’s going to happen with the reds,” Verhey says. “They will need a fair amount of hang time and good light to develop really good, mature flavors. But, we still have a couple of months to go, and let’s hope the weather stays good.”