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.
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.
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.
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.