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WineInk: Harvest 2021

Matt Crafton gives the 411 on the 707

Kelly J. Hayes
Wine Ink
Harvest season at the Chateau Montelena vineyards in Calistoga, Calif.

Just as the splendor of the aspen leaves are finally falling from the trees signaling the close of the season, so too in vineyards across the Northern Hemisphere the harvest of the 2021 wine vintage is winding down. Most wineries from the Napa Valley to the northern Rhone from Paso Robles to the Mosel are just about finished picking their grapes and are moving on to the production of their wines.

“Just a couple more picks to go,” Matt Crafton, head winemaker at Napa’s iconic Chateau Montelena, said last week in a phone call from the Calistoga based winery. “We’ve got some Cabernet Franc and a little Petite Verdot still on the vines and that will be the end of it,” he told me, mentioning a pair of Bordeaux varieties that he will be blending with the estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon. In his voice you could hear a combination of both exhaustion and anticipation. “This is day number 48 of our harvest, and yeah, we have not had much sleep. But we are really excited about what we have picked and think this could be a great vintage.”

The word in Napa is that while quality is high, the yield (the number of grapes harvested for wine) is down this year from previous vintages. There is as much as a 20% drop in the fruit or “tonnage” of grapes than in an average year. Clusters of grapes have been comparatively small and the berries on them are also smaller .



But Crafton is filled with unbridled, sleep-deprived enthusiasm.

“Thus far, harvest 2021 has been fantastic, except for the yields which have been quite low,” he relayed in an early morning email “If you live in a binary world, then yes, this is not a perfect vintage (what is?). But that doesn’t mean it can’t be great. If your techniques are prescribed, your favored fruit profile narrow, and your wine style ‘stable,’ then 2021 may seem more worrisome than exciting. But for me, and for Montelena, these are the vintages we absolutely love. It’s about recognizing (and seizing!) the opportunities while harnessing the right skillset to capture this year in the glass.”




Of course, one would have to be pretty myopic not to see the beauty of the 2021 harvest in context. The four previous harvests, going back to 2017, have all been interrupted or affected by massive brush fires that have burned in and around Napa and Sonoma wine country. Each of those vintages were impacted, if not directly, then tangentially by the consuming focus on the infernos.

Amongst growers there is speculation that the fires left their mark on this vintage as well. As the population was stressed by the October blazes of 2020, so too were the vines. Some vintners think the vines did not shut down in a normal manner as they usually would following harvest. This stress, coupled with the continuing drought conditions, is what many believe is responsible for the diminished yields in this year’s pick.

For the last seven weeks, Crafton, like the other winemakers in vineyards around the world, has been consumed by the most important part of the process: getting the fruit that they have worried about and tended for the better part of eight months off the vines and into the wineries so that the fermentation process can begin. “It’s like nothing else,” Crafton explains. “It is exhilarating and requires a level of constant focus and attention. It is paradoxical but you have to be both flexible and focused because you need a plan and then be able to change that plan at a moment’s notice.”

Even when Crafton sleeps, which is not much during these last two critical months, he is constantly thinking about the details of the pick. The obvious, and most critical, task is making the decision about which vineyards, or vineyard blocks, or even rows, to pick at just the right moment. The grapes ripen and the sugars reach the levels the winemaker wants, and it is time to harvest. Get that call wrong and all the work that has been put into the vintage is diminished.

Matt Crafton, head winemaker at Napa’s iconic Chateau Montelena. (Courtesy photo)

Of course, making wine is not an individual endeavor. “We have just a small four-person winemaking team on staff, but when all is said and done there over 100 people involved in our production process. From the vineyard workers to those who drive the trucks, even those who fuel the trucks, the people who work with us must understand that their job is just as important as mine.”

I mentioned to Crafton that it sounded a little like a team sport and he concurred. “It’s like being a quarterback and needing to understand what every position does on every play and putting together a game plan to execute that play. Something doesn’t work and the whole team is affected.”

Crafton is fortunate to be a part of one the most storied, family-owned wineries in the world. In 1882, A.L Tubbs, a San Francisco magnate, made a fortuitous purchase of prime vineyard land in the shadow of Mount St. Helena just north of Calistoga. He built an eponymous stone winery, planted the vineyards to Cabernet Sauvignon and hired a Frenchman as winemaker. Successful in his endeavors, the winery prospered until prohibition.

Ninety years later, after the winery had been given its current moniker combining mountain and St. Helena, it was purchased by Los Angeles attorney Jim Barrett. He became famous when the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay defeated the best of the French white Burgundies in the American Bicentennial year of 1976, at what would become known as the “Judgment of Paris.” Today, still under the Barrett family stewardship, Chateau Montelena makes around 35,000 cases annually (depending on the size of the vintage, of course) of some of the most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley.

“I’m really fortunate to work for a winery of just the right size. If you are too small you don’t have the resources, the vineyards, and the grapes, to paint a picture, if I can use an artistic analogy,” Matt said. “Too big and it’s easy to lose control. I think we have a sweet spot that lets us be creative and focus on using the entire palette, to be production driven rather than just driven by sales.”

“It all comes together because we have the freedom to be curious and creative at Montelena. It’s within vintages like 2021, in the discovery and exploration, that we consistently over-deliver,” he explained. “Some see a lack of hang time, I see a diversity of flavor. Others see high acid, I see age-able wines. The ingredients are the ingredients. It’s our job to take them to the next level. I’m so excited for what these wines will be. I just wish we had more of them.”

And he was also excited to return to his family after harvest: “You are so focused that you really need to take the time to reconnect. I have three kids and we have never been to Fleet Week in San Francisco, so maybe we’ll drive in to see the Blue Angels.”

A high-flying end to a vintage year?

UNDER THE INFLUENCE


Chateau Montelena 2019 Potter Valley Riesling

Talk about an outlier. When you think of Chateau Montelena you see visions of Calistoga, the ivy-covered walls of the winery and Cabernet Sauvignon and their famed Chardonnay. But for those in the know, Matt Crafton crafts another wine sourced from Mendocino’s Potter Valley, a Riesling that is as crisp and bright as a California day. This 2019 iteration comes a year after the winery declined to release the wine in 2018 due to smoke exposure in the vineyard. It was the first time since 1982 they did not release a Riesling. Floral on the nose, with a hint of sweetness on the tongue, the wine has a balanced character all its own.


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