To Pick or Not to To Pick? That is the Question

In Napa Valley, winemakers are of two opinions

For all of September, harvest was happily humming along in most of Wine Country with truckloads of grapes arriving in the early morning hours at crush pads almost daily — chardonnay, gewürztraminer, pinot noir — and the smell of fermentation hung sweetly in the air. But in Napa Valley, there was one thing that wasn’t moving: the Brix, or sugar levels, on cabernet sauvignon and other red varieties. Relatively cooler days (in the 70s) were keeping the grapes hovering around 22 degrees Brix, and other indicators of ripeness, such as flavor development and the softening of skins, seemed stalled as well. After such a perfect season, would we be destined to harvest slightly underripe grapes, after all?

Laurie Hook, the winemaker for Beringer, attributed the phenomenon to what she calls an “inversion layer.” Because she sources fruit for Beringer’s reserve cabernet sauvignon from mostly mountain vineyards, she was noticing a change in the normal order of ripening. On most years (all other years since 1986, when she started with Beringer, in fact) the mountain vineyards are cooler and therefore slower to ripen. But in September, 2012, as she made the trek up to her high altitude vineyards (from Bancroft on Howell mountain at 1,800 feet to the highest vineyard in Napa Valley on Mount Veeder at 2,500 feet), she noticed that just the opposite was true. The mountain vineyards were actually slightly warmer during the day than those on the valley floor.

On the last weekend of September, this all changed, when a heat wave came crashing down. With highs reaching 102, most winemakers were sure this was the final push to ripeness the grapes would need. Some, however, were concerned that that kind of heat so late in the year, would be more than the vines could handle, causing them to shut down and forcing an earlier-than-normal harvest.

Both turned out to be true.

Cathy Corison, a celebrated Cabernet producer who works with older vines and vineyard sites that tend to ripen fruit earlier and at lower sugars, began picking shortly after the first heat spell and was finished with harvest on October 9. “Just look at the vines; you can tell when they’re done,” she says. (She also couldn’t be happier — calling 2012 a “perfect” year.) And when a vine is “done” that means that it won’t continue to ripen fruit no matter how long you let it hang even though, thanks to dehydration, the sugars may continue to climb. Others, like Stephanie Putnam at Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena, have decided to wait it out. She wasn’t deterred by the slight softening of the grape skins she saw after the heat spell. Rather than picking before the grapes achieved the level of ripeness she prefers, she chose to irrigate and hope that the grapes plumped up again, and many of them have.

But even for those who have decided to wait it out, the clock on harvest 2012 is ticking. Cooler weather and the ever so slightest chance of rain is in the forecast.