Rod Byers: Harvest talk |

Rod Byers: Harvest talk


Harvest is over. The grapes have been picked, fermented and the wines put to bed. Time for a moment of reflection.

In terms of a growing season, 2020 was a tough act to follow. That’s how farmers would draw it up if they could. But just to remind us that nothing is ever perfect, 2020 also had all that smoke. That was a big problem for a lot of places marring an otherwise perfect year.

For the second year in a row Nevada County dodged the smoke bullet. This year the Caldor Fire in El Dorado County was devastating over there but didn’t have an impact here. Nobody locally is seeing any sign of smoke taint in their wines.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges to this year’s harvest. Not only did a very dry spring lead to a reduced crop size, it was also the hottest summer in anyone’s memory. A more normal pattern for us would be, generally hot but not scorching heat with a couple of heat spikes thrown in somewhere along the way. This year felt like one solid heat spike without end.

Heat spikes are a problem because they can wreck your crop if they hit at the wrong time. 
Sustained heat throughout the growing season, as long as you have enough water to keep your vines irrigated, has an impact on flavor but is less damaging to the fruit. Unless you are trying to grow cool-climate grapes, which almost nobody around here is, then heat per se is a factor but less of a problem.

With that in mind I asked seven local wineries what they thought were the best as well as the most challenging aspects of 2021.

Mark Henry, Montoliva Winery. “Best thing about harvest…I’d have to say, besides that fact that it’s done, all the rain we have gotten right after harvest, and before the vines go dormant. This is really going to pay dividends going into next year.

Most challenging … we got full yields from our Chicago Park Wabash Avenue Vineyard. That was somewhat unexpected, and led to crushing a total of 42 tons of fruit. Far more than we have ever done before. This harvest/crush season I felt more like a logistics manager than a vineyardist/winemaker.”

Guy Lauterbach, Gray Pine Winery. “Best thing is that I was able to get farm labor crew for harvest. I was concerned that with COVID, it could have been difficult to obtain labor.

Most challenging was fruit quality. Extreme drought and heat of this summer caused very small crop, but also premature increase in sugar. The grapes were dehydrating faster than they were ripening.”

Rob Chrisman, Avanguardia Winery. “The best and most challenging things this year were opposite sides of the same thing. We had a healthy, larger than average crop but because of labor issues we couldn’t do as much thinning as needed and struggled with uneven ripening. We still have some fruit hanging.”

Alex Szabo, Szabo Winery. “I can tell you what I am most excited about; planting Cabernet Franc, which I love, and it grows really well here. The harvest? My petite sirah, grenache and syrah I picked exactly when I wanted. Beautiful.

The most challenging thing was too much heat for too long. It really affected my Primitivo and Zinfandel and I ended up dropping the entire crop. Ouch!”

Carlos Carnucho, Arquils Winery. “The best thing was harvesting my target goal of grapes and getting them at perfect levels.

The most challenging was the uneven ripening due to the dry spring. I was forced to drop about 50% of the crop in order to preserve the quality of the remaining grapes.”

Kim Crevoiserat, Nevada City Winery. “The dry spring stressed the vines. The resulting grapes were smaller this year, really concentrating the flavors. I was impressed with the juice I was tasting.

I was most worried about smoke. We buy some grapes from out of the county and I was concerned what we might get. So far so good.”

Phil and Jackson Starr, Sierra Starr Winery. “By far the best thing is the quality of the fruit. Really nice plus a bigger crop than last year. We had plenty of water. That helped. While it was hot, it was consistent allowing us to pick when we wanted, always a huge bonus.

On the challenging side, labor, all season long. Because of COVID a lot of the people we count on were not available so we did most everything ourselves. During pruning we were in the vineyard from January until March. During harvest we were in the vineyard all day, every day. It’s been a long season.

One more thing. Our harvests now are two to three weeks earlier than they were 25 years ago when we started. It is nice to get the grapes in sooner and not still be out there picking in late October. The atmospheric river storm we had in October would have ruined the crop this year if it were still hanging on the vine.”

It’s clear to see: heat, water, and labor are the defining issues, oh ya, and smoke. Let’s not forget that. But, let’s also remember, at the very core of things, the things that can actually be controlled, Nevada County is a great place to grow grapes. See the side bar for my recommendations. There are some really nice wines out there.

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

The harvest at Montoliva with Mark Henry standing, with pickers around, in the middle.
Provided photo
From left, Mark Henry, Mark Foster and Jackson Starr on a panel discussing grape growing in Nevada County.
Provided photo

A Miner’s Dozen Case of Wine

Nevada County offers a range of great tasting wines. Italian, French, Spanish, and Eastern European varietals are thriving with wines spanning from crisp whites to robust reds. I selected my Miner’s Dozen to showcase a range of styles and flavors. Just because I don’t list your favorite wine doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, but only two picks per winery. The only rule was that all the grapes had to be grown in Nevada County. The wines are listed generally from lightest to more full-bodied. Please visit the wineries. Find some new favorites and put Nevada County wines on your table.

Nevada City: 2018 Tempranillo Rosé, strawberry fruit aromas, soft, round and dry:

Avanguardia: 2017 Due Fiori, dry and floral with delicate notes of roses and orange citrus:

Sierra Starr: 2020 Fume Blanc, vanilla wafers and citrus, balanced with a crisp, long finish:

Arquils: 2020 Tempranillo, fresh, juicy, earthy, crisp, medium-light-bodied:

Avanguardia: 2013 Ampio, nicely aged, black cherry, cedar and cigar box with good structure

Arquils: 2019 Serena, strawberry fruit, nice mid-palate, good structure, soft finish

Montoliva: 2018 Sangiovese Estate, red candy apple and spice, medium bodied, balanced:

Sierra Starr: 2018 Zinfandel Old Clone, raspberry, brambles and spice, classic 100% Zinfandel

Nevada City: 2016 Merlot, blackberries and black pepper, soft, supple, spicy, smooth

Gray Pine: 2018 Cabernet Franc, berries, herbs, and sweet oak, nice mouthfeel, long finish:

Gray Pine: 2018 Petit Verdot, refined and robust, an elegant mix of aroma, body and finish

Szabo: 2015 Visir, bouquet of black fruits, soft mid-palate, good balance, big finish:

Montoliva: 2018 Negramaro, plums, spice and black tea, robust with good structure

Szabo: 2015 Petite Sirah, black licorice and spice, soft mid-palate, robust finish

— Rod Byers

Newly picked Nevada County grapes.
Provided photo
Sign in downtown Grass Valley during harvest listing recent picks.
Provided photo

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