WineInk: Duckhorn Wine perseveres through the 2020 harvest |

WineInk: Duckhorn Wine perseveres through the 2020 harvest

Kelly J. Hayes


2017 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Merlot

This is not the first year that temperatures have spiked in early September in the Napa Valley. In 2017 it was nearly as warm on the exact same dates. And this epic Merlot from the famed Three Palms Vineyard is proof that triple digits don’t have to mean despair. Once again, a wine that deserves to live a long life in the bottle before consumption, at this stage it is full, fruit-forward and flavorful. The 40th anniversary vintage of this wine, whose 2014 vintage was Wine Spectators “Wine of the Year.” Yes, in 2017.

“Winemakers are eternal optimists, right? So we think we will be in a good place when all is said and done.” So stated Neil Bernardi, vice president and general manager at Kosta Browne in California and Canvasback in Washington, in a recent conversation about the upcoming harvest. And while it is true that winemakers, like farmers everywhere, require a deep reservoir of optimism to deal with the vicissitudes of Mother Nature, this year the trials and tribulations are perhaps greater than ever before.

Still, Bernardi, who is based in Sonoma County where he directly oversees pinot noir specialists Kosta Browne and Goldeneye, as well as the emerging Canvasback —Duckhorn’s Bordeaux-centric project in Washington’s Red Mountain region — was characteristically positive about the potential for the upcoming vintage: “As a company we have such diverse sources for our fruit, be it our own vineyards or those we buy from, that we always can make special wines.”

While acknowledging that this year’s pandemic, wildfires and, most recently, record heat that struck California’s wine regions, are all problematic, he noted that the company has seen some of this before. “I kind of feel like we have spent the last 10 years honing our skills for these sorts of things. What with fires, floods and blackouts, we’re kind of used to moving fast.”

Indeed, in the decades since Dan and Margaret Duckhorn produced the company’s first wines in 1978 there have been many changes and challenges along the path to the 2020 harvest. Beginning with a renegade notion to produce quality merlot in the Napa Valley, a mecca best known for its cabernet, the company has evolved to become home to 10 different labels in the portfolio, most making site-specific wines over a 1,000-mile swath from the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara to the Columbia Valley in Washington state.

Some, including this writer, now consider pinot noir from their homegrown Goldeneye in the Anderson Valley, and the more recent acquisitions of Kosta Browne and Calera labels, as the signatures of the company. But to Bernardi, the strength of Duckhorn lies in its structure.

“We have really been good at thoughtful diversification,” he says of how Duckhorn has expanded its holdings under president Alex Ryan. “I look at it like we are a collection of unique and individual small wineries that benefit from the resources of being a part of the larger group.”

“When Brian Rudin, our winemaker at Canvasback, wanted to make a rosé from syrah last year, he had seven other (company) winemakers with, I don’t know how many combined years of experience, that he could call on and ask questions,” Bernardi continued. “We are collaborative as opposed to competitive,” he said about the Duckhorn winemakers who report to executive winemaker Renee Airy, who oversees the brands. “The goal is to produce wines with both a unique sense of place and purpose.”

Of course, no matter the purpose, 2020 brought its own plan.

The pandemic has changed things, not just in the tasting rooms where hospitality has been the forte of Duckhorn’s marketing efforts for four decades, but also in the vineyards and in the winemaking facilities themselves.

“Obviously safety has become the priority,” Bernardi said about the current harvest. “Everyone in the vineyards and in the wineries are wearing masks and roaming around with sanitizers on their belts. There are X’s on the floors to help people with social distancing. We have stretching in the vineyards for the team before we start each day and now everybody is spread out, and the harvest lunches are different with everyone having to sit 6 feet apart.” Bernardi’s wines are also sorted optically with digital equipment rather than by hand.

And then there is the heat. This past Labor Day weekend saw temperatures sky rocket in California vineyards. In Napa, home to the Duckhorn, Paraduxx and Postmark labels, the temperature reached a record 110 degrees Sunday. Hollister, home to Calera, also hit 110 degrees and Boonville, not far from Goldeneye, sizzled under 113 degrees. At those temperatures it is obviously too hot for workers to head out into the vineyards, so at best, harvests are moved to the pre-dawn hours.

But the biggest challenge for Bernardi and other winemakers is that all of these conditions — the health regulations, the smoke and fires, and the spikes in temperatures — force them to pivot on the fly. Today, it is the name of the game.

“But yeah,” Bernardi said with an audible shrug, “I told you I’m an optimist.”