25 September- Napa, CA
Napa Harvest 2015
The 2015 vintage in Napa Valley will be long remembered for events that occurred to our north in Lake County. Following three years of drought in Northern California, the wilderness areas were hit particularly hard by wildfires.
Just as the North Coast harvest was reaching its peak in mid-September, the Valley Fire rapidly erupted near Middletown and Cobb Mountain. High winds and rugged terrain made the massive blaze incredibly difficult for firefighters to contain. Early on, fire personnel devoted most of their efforts evacuating thousands of residents and animals.
Thousands of residents took shelter at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. Hundreds of homes were lost. The Valley Fire now qualifies as one of the three most destructive wildfires in California history. More than 1900 structures were destroyed in the inferno.
Lake County suffered three major wildfires in 2015:
Valley Fire, September 12-25 (currently 90% contained). 76,067 acres burned
Jerusalem Fire, August 9-25. 25,118 acres burned
Rocky Fire, July 29-August 14. 64,438 acres burned
Lake County is bordered by the renowned wine regions of Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa Counties. All of these areas were affected in some way by the huge fires. Fortunately for Napa Valley, the wildfires only reached our far northern borders. While hundreds of commuting winery workers suffered tragic property losses in Lake County, the vineyards in Napa Valley were largely spared. As winds were directed to the north and east, Napa Valley vineyards avoided most of the heavy smoke.
The 2015 vintage got an early start with very mild winter weather that prompted an early bud-break in March. During the following month, grape cluster flowers bloom, pollenate and begin to set fruit as tiny green berries. This period is called “set” and determines how much fruit the vine will eventually produce for the vintage. Unlike the winter months, May was fairly cool and humid, and it appeared that many of the flowers did not open. Some believe that the dry soils also limited fruit set. Additionally, some grape clusters had “chicks and hens”, where both small and large berries develop in the same cluster.
By mid-July most of the grapes had gone through veraison and berries had reached full size. At this point, viticulturists will count and weigh grape clusters to make yield estimates. Many were shocked at the low yield calculations. Most vineyards saw yields reduced by 10 to 20%, while others were up to 50% below their seasonal average.
Harvest officially began in mid-July with sparkling wine production. Many wineries started picking their aromatic white fruit like Sauvignon Blanc around August 10th, and they were mostly finished by the end of the month. In an average year, there might be a bit of a lull between the white and red grape harvests. Not so in 2015. Warm weather with extremely low humidity in early September pushed varieties like Pinot Noir and Merlot to full ripeness. The week of September 6th brought the first sustained heat wave to Northern California with five days reaching triple-digit temperatures. By the end of the following week, at least half of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa Valley had been harvested. For some perspective, Cabernet Sauvignon is generally picked in late September through the end of October. This year’s harvest will be mostly over by the end of September.
While this has been an early harvest with low yields, the early indications are that the quality of the wines in 2015 will be exceptional. Napa Valley is well known for big, rich and powerful wines, and this vintage should be no exception.
- by Tom Rees, Winemaker