Each year without fail the grapevines within the Napa Valley advance through their lifecycle. It begins with bud break in the spring, veraison and ripening in the summer, and then finally, fall harvest. The steps within the annual cycle are pivotal; every mutation is watched closely by vintners, winemakers, and vineyard managers, each of whom trust in nature’s integrity, and each of whom rivals local meteorologists in climate knowledge.
Success – in grape growing, and ultimately in the final bottled product – is closely linked to weather and environment. But even in the most severe and dramatic of circumstances, grapes somehow survive all of the elements including cold winter nights and scorching mid-summer heat to ripen in their own time – harvest time – ultimately becoming something savored and beloved by those around the world.
From August through October, and sometimes later, the Napa Valley comes alive with the sounds, smells, and activities of harvest. A late-night/early morning drive down Silverado Trail or Highway 29 reveals vineyard rows illuminated by tractor lights and hardworking men and women loading grapes into picking bins. During harvest, several wineries bless their grapes. Some engage in unique traditions. Most assess their equipment and their readiness for the soon-to-arrive grape bounty. Whichever manner in which the occasion is marked, harvest is undoubtedly Napa’s seminal season.
“The beauty of harvest lies in the fact that we must accept and align ourselves with Mother Nature,” said Kathleen Ward, assistant winemaker at Theorem Vineyards on Diamond Mountain where elevation and cooler night temperatures allow for a longer ripening season.
“And it’s our responsibility to harness what Mother Nature has given us and turn it into something extraordinary.”
“Our harvest begins with a champagne toast to the arrival of the first fruit of the vintage. It’s a day where we celebrate the fruit reaching optimal ripeness, and we begin the first of many steps to making our wine. Some of those steps are rooted in science, some in art, some in tradition, and others in superstition.”
“The anticipation during harvest of what is to come is always great,” said Mitch Cosentino, consulting winemaker at J. McClelland Cellars. Harvest time for him is spent in every corner of Napa and beyond, surveying the grapes that he’s watched closely during the growing season. “We have a pretty seasoned crew, so we are rarely surprised by anything.” The tradition to which he adheres annually is toasting his staff as the first grapes of the season make their way to the crush pad. “We all enjoy a celebratory sip of a previous vintage for which those grapes were used, and then we pour the remaining balance of the bottle into the crusher or press for good luck.”
Cosentino’s calm harvest reserve is contrasted slightly with the adrenalized excitement of his J. McClelland co-winemaker Paul Scotto who prepares for harvest each year with a July 4 family getaway. “The day we return, I jump into winemaker mode full throttle,” said Scotto. “There’s always a sense of excitement in the air. It’s like hitting the reset button: it’s a time to get the equipment serviced and checked, like a flight crew checking out the plane before takeoff. The goal is to troubleshoot and address any issues before we receive the first load of grapes. We aim to make each new harvest even more efficient than the last.”
Jeff Cole, winemaker at Sullivan Rutherford Estate in the heart of the valley, reiterates the ‘all hands on deck’ mentality of harvest. “We have a small team, and when that first load of grapes comes in about the first week of September, we are ready to go.” In addition to an initial harvest lunch that is prepared for Cole and his team, Sullivan proprietor Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla invites the entire winery staff into his home every Thursday for lunch. “This is particularly significant during harvest,” says Cole. “Camaraderie is extremely important during the rigorous harvest months, and these family-style meals are integral to team building.”
At Frank Family Vineyards, it is customary for the retail sales department to host a bountiful breakfast for the production crew at about the three-week harvest mark – when sustenance and energy are most needed. “It’s a time for everyone to step back for a moment and take a deep breath,” says Liam Gearity, director of direct-to-consumer sales and hospitality. “We set-up on the back patio and it’s just a really nice event where everyone comes together during this exciting time of the year.”
Frank Family winemaker Todd Graff emphasizes the exhilaration and anticipation of the season, “We wouldn’t be doing this as long as we have if we didn’t love doing it.” The 17-year Frank Family veteran previously worked at Schramsberg where he learned the art of champagne sabering. Thus, he famously sabers a bottle of Frank Family sparkling wine upon delivery of the first grape bin. He pours a few drops over the grapes while the crew imbibes the rest.
“Harvest season is simply our greatest time of the year,” Graff said.
At Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, harvest is heralded by a blessing of the first load of grapes to arrive at the winery – a special tradition that brings together the full winemaking and cellar crew as well as family and friends. “It gets everyone excited to kick-off the season,” said Stag’s Leap winemaker Marcus Notaro. “Our other big tradition is that most of the winemaking and cellar crew don’t shave during harvest. They treat it like the Stanley Cup playoffs. We have a game-time mentality of ‘don’t shave until you win’.”
At Goosecross Cellars, proprietor Christi Coors Ficeli performs the blessing of their grapes, and it’s her favorite part of harvest season. “It’s a magical time,” said Ficeli, who provides her winemaking team with annual ‘Team Harvest’ t-shirts. “I say a little prayer over the grapes while our winemaker Bill Nancarrow sabers a bottle of sparkling. We all take a deep breath and drink the bubbly while telling stories and laughing about all of the little things that tend to happen in any given harvest. Then it is time to work! There is an overall sense of hyper-speed during harvest. We all pitch in as needed and we keep the fridge stocked with Coors Banquet at all times. We often bring in sandwiches and pizza to keep everyone fueled throughout the day. We all understand that what we do the year ‘round relies heavily on doing our best during the three critical months in the fall when we make it all happen.”
The season, of course, is not only limited to grape harvest. “During this time of year, it is harvest time in every sense within the valley,” said Cosentino. “For those of us that have home gardens, ripe produce is always a prelude to grape harvest. The picking of the new grapes often coincides with a bounty of fresh-from-the-garden produce for use in our kitchens. Harvest satisfaction can come in many ways.”
Article By: Fran Miller