Rod Byers: A fiery wine harvest
October 31, 2017
"It was the harvest from hell," said Mark Foster, longtime winemaker at Nevada City Winery. Yikes, that's harsh, I thought. I wondered if Foster was referring to the inferno raging through northern California wine country, a "hounds of hell" kind of thing?
No. He was talking about the actual harvest, of which the fires, including fires in Nevada County, were just one aspect. The challenges, he explained, were multi-faceted.
It didn't start out that way. After five years of drought, the wet winter gave the vines a deep soaking. Even the wet, cool spring that reduced fruit set for some didn't diminish the optimism.
Once summer finally arrived, it was hot.
Hotter than ever before
"In the 17 years I've been doing this," Mark Henry of Montoliva Winery said, "I've registered at most four total days in the vineyard above 100 degrees during the growing season. This year it was 16. Including the day it hit 107, the hottest I've ever registered."
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Summer heat is a curious thing. Vines like heat and thrive in sunshine. But not extreme heat. When temperatures rise to 100 vines shut down to preserve energy.
The rest of the summer, instead of scorching, it was just plain hot. The abundance of 90 degree days made up for the late start. As the end of August approached the season looked pretty much on track, with wineries starting to pick whites and early reds.
Then Labor Day weekend scrambled everything. That is when it got to 107 in Mark Henry's vineyard. The heat was staggering.
As much as the heat, it was the timing that made the Labor Day spike so severe. It is common for growers to restrict water to their vines in the weeks before picking in order to intensify flavor.
The combination of 105 plus degree weather and already water stressed vines caused dehydration and shriveling in the grapes. Growers rushed to pick anything that was close to ready to prevent further shrinking of their crop.
"That was another problem this year," Foster said. "The entire crop has been light. We're only getting about two thirds of what we were expecting."
Jackson Starr, winemaker at Sierra Starr Winery in Grass Valley said they never stopped irrigating.
"Even so, dehydration pushed the reds on the edge of ripeness over the top so we really had to scramble to keep up," he said. "Even with the water we could not stop the dehydration."
Abruptly the weather turned unseasonably cool. Ripening stopped. The heat spike had caused the vines to shut down and the cooler than normal weather had not given them an immediate reason to get going again.
Sierra Starr picked Zinfandel on Sept. 13 and then did not pick again until Sept. 30. It is not uncommon to have dips in September weather, including rain, but that usually only stalls harvest for a few days. To go 17 days, starting mid-September, without picking anything is unheard of.
Jackson Starr thinks it might all be a blessing in disguise. Slower ripening allowed extended hang time on the vines, letting the grapes develop both phenolic and sugar readiness.
"It was slow, but they got there," Starr said. "The consistent weather gave us the luxury of picking when we thought the grapes were perfectly ripe. Except for some birds, there was nothing forcing us to pick."
"Picking" Mark Foster said, "was another problem this harvest."
Just because your grapes were ready didn't mean you could get them picked. There was a dramatic shortage, state-wide, of picking crews.
Whether pickers have been lured off to other jobs, or ducking for cover, the result is the same. Crews were hard to get, and more expensive. This year there was no guarantee you could get your grapes picked at all, much less exactly when you wanted.
The year of fire
Finally, 2017 will be remembered generally as the year of fire. Even if a vineyard doesn't burn, fire can ruin the flavor of wine grapes with something called smoke taint, caused by contact with smoke.
If the grapes are already harvested it is not a problem but if you have vineyards near a fire, you've got to get the grapes off as quickly as possible. Smoke taint residue doesn't stick to actual vines, just to the grapes that were exposed to the smoke.
"You can still make wine from those grapes," Foster said, "but the smoke taint gives it a rough, burnt, smoke flavor. No finesse."
Earlier this summer Sierra Starr had a wildfire at the base of their newly planted vineyard. The fire burnt to within 12 feet of Starr's house. Fortunately, quick work by fire fighters saved the structure.
"I had always heard vineyards were difficult to burn," Phil Starr said. "But apparently not. We lost 600 young vines, and four years of development."
The day I visited they were replanting with Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Sirah.
Jackson Starr thinks it's way too early to make any quality predictions for 2017 but remembered, "2006 was another hot summer with multiple days over 100 degrees, and our Zin that year was really intense and flavorful."
"It's like a notch in their belt," he said. "The red grapes that escaped premature harvest are better for surviving the storm."
We'll look forward to finding out.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk On TV. You can find information about his wine classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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