NAPA, Calif. – A historically stormy winter followed by a relatively cool spring and summer pushed Napa's grape harvest well into fall leaving the fruit susceptible to autumn storms and chills, winemakers said that waiting game has so far paid off in terms of quantity and quality.
John Anthony Truchard, founder and CEO of John Anthony Family of Wines, said that Napa has seen a shorter growing season with lots of sun and heat in recent years. Harvest started as early as late August for grapes for sparkling wine. In those years, all the fruit could be in by the end of October.
"More typical in Napa Valley is a longer growing season where we may still have 5-10% to harvest in November," Truchard said. "This year, due to a wet winter and spring earlier this year followed by a cooler summer, that number could be as much as 15-20% still to harvest in November."
Bud break, bloom and veraison (grapes turning from green to purple) ran two to four weeks later than usual, according to John Anthony Vineyards' blog. Minimal heat waves with temperatures in the 90s and 100s slowed ripening. But "late is great," said the blog.
"With the slight heat spikes we’ve had late in the 2023 growing season, it looks to be not only a heavy-yield vintage with plenty of the ripeness development we’ve been looking for, but also a year of excellent quality," Truchard said. "An extended hang time allows the grapes maximum opportunity to develop flavor and intensity."
Ripeness and rot: Concerns of a late harvest
So far the gamble of patiently waiting for grapes to ripen has been a win in the form of large crops and excellent quality, according to Truchard.
"The reason harvest is late is we’re waiting for the sugars and physiological ripening of the grapes," Truchard said. "Sugar accumulation is easy to measure and is purely quantitative. 'Ripeness' is an art, a stylistic choice of the winemaker. In a warm year, you can choose to pick early, mid or late in the growing season to achieve the wine’s style. In a cooler year, the risk is whether the vine can achieve the level of ripeness the winemaker wants for that intended style."
The color, flavor, acid levels and tannins factor into taste and style.
So far, Napa Valley has only seen two quick rains, which Truchard called a nuisance, not a problem. Rain and cool weather could trigger rot for grapes on the vine. Too much rain can cause the berry to swell and split as it pulls in the water. Excess water also dilutes sugars.
Low temperatures this weekend will flirt with the freezing mark in areas. That could force a pick before grapes are ripe.
"This is something Napa doesn’t have a lot of experience with," Truchard said. "Should this happen, the best solution is to pick immediately. The frost would break the cell walls of the grapes down and if you were to let the grapes stay in the field too long after the frost, the berries would start fermenting on the vine, which isn’t ideal."
Portfolio includes Weather and JaM Cellers with Butter
The second-generation vintner, who has started best-selling brands such as Butter and premier labels such as John Anthony, has spent decades watching the weather hurt and harm his grapes.
"Weather is the force that determines the fate of a grapevine more directly than any other," explained the brand's website. "It was the weather that created the soils the grapes grow in and it’s weather that dictates the vintage."
"The slight variation of even one element shifts the ethereal beauty of these fragile, thin-skinned grapes, creating wines with astounding individualism and character," the brand's website said.