Pop the Corks! Napa Valley’s Wine Harvest is Finally Underway

| August 30, 2011 | 0 Comments
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Mumm Workers on First Day of Harvest-Robb McDonough
Photo: Robb McDonough

It’s a day that wine growers, wine makers and wine drinkers all look forward to. This year the wait for that day was longer than usual. Cool summer temperatures pushed back the beginning of harvest by nearly two weeks. I visited one of the first wineries in Napa Valley to start picking grapes this year, Mumm Napa Winery. Workers began in the cool, pre-dawn hours at nearby vineyards picking Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes for sparkling wine.

Mumm trucks rolling in from harvest

About 9:30am the first trucks rolled in loaded with yellow bins filled with grapes. Once a vineyard starts picking grapes, it’s really a flat-out process to get everything off the vines. At Mumm, it was expected that the first day of harvest would bring in more than 60 tons of grapes. Tomorrow, Mumm will ratchet that number up to 180 tons. Workers wore powder blue t-shirts that said “Endless Summer” on the back as a way to describe just how long vintners in both the Napa and Sonoma wine countries have been waiting for harvest to begin.

Endless Summer t shirt

This year’s crop is light and late and that is because of a wet spring and a long, cool summer. I talked with Mumm’s head winemaker, Ludovic Dervin and he told me that the wet spring meant the crops were uneven, there were big grape clusters and small grape clusters. Also, because the vineyards were so wet, they had to be thinned out. The late summer pushed back harvest as grapes needed more time on the vine to ripen. The good news for consumers is that low yields usually mean high quality. The bad news is small wine crops can sometimes mean pricier wines. We won’t have the full picture until early November when the entire harvest in both Napa and Sonoma is over. Sparkling wine grapes are the first to get picked. In a few weeks grapes for white still wines will be harvested and then red wine grapes will be picked.

Ludovic Dervin, Mumm head winemaker

In wine regions around the world there is a lot of ceremony involved with harvest time. Mumm Napa is no different. In something out of Napoleon times, winemaker Dervin donned safety goggles and yielded a saber that he used to slice off the top of a magnum of sparkling wine. Dervin then sprayed the contents on a few bins of grapes for good luck. The ceremony, often called “The blessing of the grapes,” also involved handing out splits of sparkling wine to all the Mumm workers who ceremoniously popped them in unison and began spraying one another. All this celebration is a way of hoping for good luck for the coming year.

Mumm Napa seems to be doing well. According to management, sales were up more than ten percent last year. In fact, despite the struggling economy, demand for California wines is once again on the rise. According to the San Francisco based Wine Institute, California produces ninety percent of U.S. wine exports. The industry is a huge player in the state’s economy with a retail value of more than 18 billion dollars last year.

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About the Author ()

Andrea describes herself as madly in love with wine, the growing, making and drinking of it and actively pursues all three activities. She is a Senior Editor and host with KQED's science and environment multimedia series, QUEST. She has covered a number of wine-related stories during her career including: how some children of Mexican vineyard laborers are now vintners, the impact of climate change on Napa wineries and the dizzying array of eco-wine choices. When she is not working, Andrea often finds herself cycling through vineyards not just in California but along the Croatian coast and Germany's Rhine River, high in Portugal's Douro Valley and through the wine lands of South Africa's Western cape. Of course, one eventually has to get off their bike and experience the regional tastes in this case, dry eastern reds, cool crisp Rieslings, aged Tawny Port and lush, acidic Chenin Blancs. Anyone thirsty?