By the first of September, Napa Valley wine grape growers had picked much of their 2016 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc crop and were just beginning to harvest their Merlot and other earlier red varieties, says Garrett Buckland.
Buckland, partner of Premiere Viticultural Services, based in Napa, Calif., expects the three-to-four-week harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, the area’s most widely-planted variety, to begin around Sept. 20.
“In general, the crop looks at least average in size across most places, says Buckland, who also serves as president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
That’s a pleasant surprise. Earlier in the season, fewer clusters per shoot than usual led many growers to expect a lighter-than-average crop this year.
The low cluster counts reflected a combination of very cool and very hot spring-time temperatures in 2015 which disrupted development of the buds that would give rise to this year’s crop.
However, those growers anticipating this year’s reduced cluster counts adjusted their pruning and crop thinning practices this season to favor more fruit production. This included leaving more shoots on the vine as well as adjusting bud counts per vine to offset any reduction in yield.
Berry weights this year were also average to slightly above average, largely due to higher seeds per berry.
“Last year, a lot of clusters had just one seed, if any, per berry,” Buckland says. “This year we’re seeing a more average two to three seeds per berry.”
Napa Valley’s 2016 crop has also benefitted from moderate growing season temperatures. June featured very few heat spikes, while July and August were cooler than average.
This reduced the workload in the vineyards by minimizing the time and expense of managing canopies to protect grapes from hot weather. Plus, it should make wine makers happy by softening tannins, improving color extraction and reducing the risk of heat damage during the late part of the season.
“The lack of extreme weather conditions, like we’ve had this year, allows a vineyard’s potential to shine through,” Buckland says. “This can result in both high quantity and high quality grape production. We saw that in 2012, 2013 and 2014 when we had very big crops along with some of our best vintages ever. Many wineries are telling us that the quality of the grapes harvested so far this year has been absolutely tremendous.”
Having enough workers to harvest the crop in Napa Valley, where almost all the grapes are picked by hand, is always a concern. However, growers here have done much in the past few years to encourage a stable year-round supply of qualified workers to help tend the vineyards, Buckland notes.
“The Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation (established by Napa Valley Grapegrowers) has done a fantastic job of expanding educational opportunities and outreach programs to help create a permanent, highly skilled workforce in our area” he says. “The wage rate for agricultural workers here is one of the best in the state and most growers offer their employees full-time, year round work and benefits, such as retirement packages, health and dental insurance.”
Like other growers, Buckland is celebrating the lifting of quarantine restrictions on grapes grown in areas of Napa and several other areas of California, which had been threatened by the European Grape Vine Moth. This followed the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s declaration in August that this invasive threat to California’s grape industry had been eradicated.
Originally from southern Europe, this pest feeds on grape berries, contaminating the fruit and exposing it to Botrytis and other infections.
The EGVM was found for the first time in North America in 2009 in a Napa County Chardonnay vineyard. By 2013 the quarantine restrictions covered 2,334 square miles in Fresno, Mendocino, Merced, Nevada, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Joaquin, Solano and Sonoma counties. That was reduced to 446 square miles in 2014.
The EGVM was last detected in California in June, 2014.
Eradicating this insect included the use of mating disruption in Napa Valley and some areas and labeled insecticides in others.
The state mounted an aggressive program to eradicate the EGVM involving growers, researchers and state and federal officials.
“Here in Napa County, our Agricultural Commissioner, Greg Clark, and EGVM grower liaison, Martin Mochizuki, Farm advisor Monica Cooper and the team from UC Cooperative Extension led the successful efforts of our growers to eliminate this very determined invasive species,” Buckland says.