Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

For many of us September marks the end of summer, back-to-school month, and the beginning of football season.

But if you grow grapes and make wine for a living in the Northern Hemisphere, September is the month of the harvest. Some grapes are picked in late August and a few varietals last into October, but for the vast majority of grapes, September is the sweet spot for harvesting.

Usually.

Not this year, however. From Washington to California, where the overwhelming majority of quality American wine is made, the harvest will be late. A cool, moist summer, the likes of which has not been seen since the late 1990s, has slowed the ripening process in most of the region’s vineyards. On top of that, a freak, late-August hot spell with temperatures above 100 degrees threw an added element of uncertainty into the mix.

In California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, harvest is running anywhere from 10 days to three weeks behind what would be considered a normal season. In Washington and Oregon, the situation is similar.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two grapes used to make sparkling wines, are usually the first varietals to be picked in a typical California season. This year, the first five acres of Pinot Noir were picked on Monday, Aug. 20 at Hunter Farms in the Glen Ellen region of Sonoma County, marking the unofficial start of the season. The first grapes in 2009 were picked 10 days earlier on Aug. 10.

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Some red wines, such as Merlot and Zinfandel, are just beginning to be picked in some warmer vineyards but, for the most part, growers are playing a waiting game, leaving the fruit on the vines as long as possible before harvesting. And that could mean a late October crush, even an early November crush, for some late-ripening varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.

A late harvest creates anxiety for growers, pickers and winemakers. Sleepless nights thinking about exactly when to harvest are followed by long days as the harvest itself actually begins. These are the times that try a winemaker’s soul.

Cool seasons can mean lower yields because the grapes tend to be smaller in size, meaning each bunch weighs a little less. So the choices about which fruit to use become even more critical. And, in a less than optimal year, there are variations between regions, vineyards, blocks and even rows of grapes that make the decision-making even more complicated.

Then there is the harvest itself. Since the growers are leaving bunches on the vines longer, waiting for the sugars to build and the grapes to ripen, the exact moment of the harvest can be chaotic. Pickers will descend on the vineyards, trucks gather and transport the grapes to the wineries, and the tanks are filled. But if you don’t know exactly when this is going to happen and you don’t have a solid feel for just how long you have to get the grapes off the vines, then you must be ready for all eventualities.

That means having an army of pickers standing by, perhaps renting more trucks for shorter periods than previously planned, and maybe even bringing in more fermentation tanks than you have at the winery. All of this costs money and, with a smaller harvest and a tough economy, there is a reason why sleep is lost.

The grower’s biggest fear, however, is one they can do nothing about. Rain can be scarier than Halloween when grapes hang on the vines into late October. A wet storm can decimate a crop and cause mildew to form, ruining the yield of an entire field. Current weather projections suggest dry skies for at least the next 10 days or so, but most growers don’t trust the weatherman. No, most growers trust the wind, the moisture in the air, the way the insects react in the fields and their intuition to tell them when a change in the weather will force their hands. These are, after all, farmers. People who live by nature’s rhythms.

So does all of this mean that the 2010 vintage will be less than stellar? To the contrary. In fact it may be that the long hang-time of these grapes concentrates flavors and ultimately yields extraordinary wines. It is too early to tell. Like any vintage, the ultimate determination of quality will be made in the years to come.

Long after the harvest, after the wine has been made, aged, bottled, sold and enjoyed – that is when the final verdict of the 2010 vintage will be delivered.