Rod Byers: Harvest talk with local winegrowers |

Rod Byers: Harvest talk with local winegrowers

Last month I wrote about smoke taint potentially affecting the quality of this year’s harvest. To recap, exposure to extreme nearby smoke has a hugely negative impact on grapes still growing on the vine. Exposure to distant, second-hand smoke is much more of a gray area.

The fires in mid-August rang winery alarm bells throughout Northern California including Nevada County but there were reasons to think that local vineyards would make it through safely. The Glass Fire that burnt through Napa at the end of September was devastating there but had little impact on vineyards here.

For a local perspective I talked to three winegrowers from different corners of the county for their impressions of the harvest.

Sierra Starr Vineyard & Winery

In this topsy-turvy 2020 world, start a new tradition by putting some excellent local wines on your dinner table.

I spoke with Grass Valley grower and winemaker Jackson Starr while he was pressing off their Petite Sirah, the last batch before everything was tucked safely into barrel. There is a genuine satisfaction to that.

When I asked him the best thing about the 2020 harvest he responded instantly. “We got every variety exactly as ripe as we wanted, without any issues.” No drama vintages are rare. Normally you are forced to do things either sooner or later than you want because of log jams elsewhere.

When I asked about challenges he said smoke of course, but so far does not see the presence of any problems. “Other than that, available labor, as always.”

His biggest surprise was the low yields, less grapes this year, and he didn’t know why. That is the tough-love life of a farmer. Some years you can lose 20% of the weight of the crop because of dehydration due to a heat wave just before harvest. That wasn’t true for them this year, still the tonnage was down.

Speaking strictly for the consumer, lower yields typically mean more intensely flavored wines so silver lining for us.

When I asked Jackson how he rated the harvest compared to recent years he replied, “Actually the last several harvests have been really good and this appears to be one more.” He continued, “It’s too early to tell. We survive harvest and write the stories later.”

Gray Pine Vineyard & Winery

I met with Penn Valley grower and winemaker Guy Lauterbach who was quick to say, “I never know when I press what it will be. It’s hard to judge a level of greatness.” He did not think it was a spectacular year. “Way hot in July and August. Too many triple digit days.”

He explained that he did not have an adequate water supply and his well was stressed by July. “It would have been better to irrigate more.”

He picked his sauvignon blanc and merlot in their normal time slots, the end of August and the beginning of September. The Labor Day heat wave caused everything else that was already water-stressed to ripen creating a backup in the winery forcing Lauterbach to leave some grapes hanging on the vines longer than he might have liked.

Lauterbach likened it to the little puzzle game with one open slot and you have to move all the squares, one at a time, to line them up correctly. What do you do to unblock the gridlock, once all the barrels and tanks are full, and there are still grapes to pick?

Lauterbach’s biggest surprise was labor. “I didn’t know what to expect with COVID, but I had no trouble getting a picking crew this year.” His biggest relief; he sees no signs of smoke damage.

Montoliva Vineyard & Winery

I met with Chicago Park grower and winemaker Mark Henry. “The best thing? We weren’t hit by an asteroid during harvest. I was kind of expecting it.”

“This year harvest weather was just about as perfect as it could have been,” Henry declared. He explained that October’s warm daytime temperatures counter-balanced by the cool night air created ideal conditions.

Like the others, Henry is not concerned about smoke damage but did think the resulting overcast skies had the effect of lowering some daily temperatures stretching the harvest.

Other than the asteroid, Henry was most surprised by his order of harvest. “Things were out of order,” he said. “Typically, our Barbera is one of the first. This year it was one of the last. Our Aglianico is always last. This year it came in before Sangiovese. No idea why. That’s one of the things I love about grape growing. Mother Nature always bats last.”

When asked about yields he replied, “It’s taken me 20 years, but I finally think I have Sangiovese dialed in, and balanced. I did no hedging, no bunch thinning, very little shoot thinning and ended up at about four tons, which is what I want.”

Picking was different story. “In years past our harvest was done by a very wide circle of friends and family, around 50-60 in all, which concluded with a traditional Russian blessing of the harvest and a feast with lots of champagne.” COVID cancelled that.

Start A New Tradition

All three of these wineries deliver an authentic, artisanal approach producing terrific wines from their own Nevada County vineyards. Collectively, with over 30 different bottlings they offer a range of varietals, styles and flavors.

Don’t wait for the 2020 harvest. In this topsy-turvy 2020 world, start a new tradition by putting some excellent local wines on your dinner table.

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. He can be reached at or 530-802-7172.

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