Kicking Off Harvest 2013

Yesterday was a great day, as we celebrated the start of another harvest and what looks like a killer 2013 vintage!

Checking in on the Sauvignon Blanc Vineyards

Winemaker Joel Aiken heads out to the Sauvignon Blanc vineyards to look at how the grapes are coming along for harvest 2013.  At this point, Joel estimates a Sauvignon Blanc harvest date of late August, about two weeks earlier than the usual September date.  Chalk that up to a warm, dry spring in which the grapes have ripened evenly in mild temperatures.

Supporting the Napa Valley Farmworker

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An outpouring of largesse from attendees boosted Auction Napa Valley 2013 fundraising to record highs

Auction Napa Valley 2013 will long be held as a benchmark year for the event with its staggering $16.9 million in funds raised, more than 60% greater than the previous high water mark.  It was a year to remember, to be sure.  But amidst all the glamour of the auction, amidst its happily frenzied bidding on lots featuring sports cars, exotic trips, and some of the finest wine and food imaginable, it’s sometimes easy to forget why we all gather for this 4-day bacchanalia on the first weekend of June every year.  We do it to support the neediest in our community.

The Napa Valley may be world-famous as the source of some wonderful wines, but we in the valley have to remind ourselves often that none of our success would be possible without the thousands of underprivileged workers that live and work here.  With land going for up to $300,000 per acre, the Napa Valley is not exactly the most affordable agricultural community in which these workers find themselves.  These hard workers that support the wine economy perform a variety of important tasks:  they’re cellar workers, restaurant dishwashers, hotel cleaning staff and migrant farmworkers that prune and harvest the vineyards.

The migrant farmworkers in particular perform important tasks under what can be harsh living conditions.  While 75% of the grapes in California are picked by machine, in Napa Valley roughly 75% are picked by hand. This means that come harvest, thousands of workers are needed to get those grapes immediately from the vineyards to the crushpad.  Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 migrant farmworkers live in Napa Valley, many seasonally.  A lack of beds, particularly in decades past, has meant that migrant farmworkers were often living in makeshift camps in the woods, under bridges, in cars, or bunking six or more men to a bedroom.

Thankfully, life for migrant farmworkers in Napa has improved dramatically from years past and is far better than most agricultural communities.  Through the work of Napa Valley Housing Authority and other important organizations, for about $12 a day many of these workers can have a shower and a hot meal when they return from the vineyards, and sleep in a clean bed in a shared room.

In 2002 vineyard owners voted to assess themselves $10 per acre to create a program which helps house and feed migrant fieldworkers. Those tax revenues along with donations contribute to provide a wide safety net for these workers, including not just housing and food, but healthcare and job placement.  While in other farming communities migrant fieldworkers are sadly exploited, paid little and charged exorbitant living expenses, in Napa hourly wages for fieldworkers are an average of 9% higher than the rest of California.

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Vineyards workers race against the warming sun during harvest 2012

It’s satisfying to be part of a community that recognizes the importance of the often unheard group that supports our economy.  As a whole, the community of vineyard owners and winemakers in Napa understands and appreciates that we couldn’t be successful without these workers.  Every year the proceeds from Auction Napa Valley go to programs that support this community of workers and their families, helping with everything from housing and food to medical care and after school programs.  With all of its glitz and glamour the auction is certainly a fun time, but every year it’s the end result that makes it worth it.

Exploring the Terroir of Napa Valley Sub-Appellations

Last week we had the pleasure in taking part in an exploratory “terroir” tasting of Cabernets from six of the 16 appellations in the Napa Valley.  While the concept of terroir comes to us from France, arguably there is no better place to explore it and taste it in the glass than here in the Napa Valley.

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Terroir is an imprecise concept of how the geography, geology and climate of a specific grape-growing location can affect the resulting wine.  The relatively tiny Napa Valley, just 1/8 the size of Bordeaux and only 30 miles long by 5 miles wide, offers winegrowers a dizzying array of elements that create vastly different terroir from one appellation, and even one vineyard, to the next.

Our tiny valley has 100 different soil variations and fully half of the world’s soil orders. With five mountains surrounding the valley and volcanic knolls throughout, as well as the Pacific Ocean sitting 30 miles to the west, the valley contains micro-climates of valley and hillside vineyards facing all different directions, some cooled by ocean fog sneaking in, some much warmer.  Vineyard soils can be alluvial, volcanic, clay, loam or other.  Add the winemaker’s influence into that mix, and what you have is a concoction of almost infinite variables influencing a wine’s terroir.

Tasting Cabernet Sauvignons from various Napa appellations side by side is an entertaining, always-educational exercise that I highly recommend for anyone interested in wine.  The six wines we tasted last week, every one of them an exceptional and delicious wine, spanned a wide variety of flavors and profiles:  some showed red perfumey fruit, others deeper black fruits, some tannins were gripping and powerful, others were velvety.

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At Amici in addition to our Napa Valley blends, we love to create vineyard-specific wines that allow people to explore in-depth the characteristics of the sub-appellations of Napa Valley.  From Spring Mountain to Rutherford Bench to Oakville, we have an exciting array of vineyard-specific wines in the bottle and in the barrel now.  Each one has its own distinct personality, an expression of its terroir, waiting to be expressed when the cork is pulled.

Special thanks to those involved in this tasting: it was organized by the Concierge Alliance of Napa Valley and Sonoma (CANVAS), led by the Napa Valley Wine Academy, and hosted at the beautiful Alpha Omega Winery.  

Spring in the Vineyards

The vines are letting let us know that spring has officially arrived.  Stirring from their months of dormancy, they’re optimistically sprouting verdant new growth and seem to be basking in sunny, warm days.

Budbreak on a Rutherford Bench vine.

Budbreak on a Rutherford Bench vine.

Inside the winery, barrels tower floor to ceiling and front to rear, and it feels like we’re bursting at the seams after the blockbuster 2012 harvest.  Yields across California were the largest on record last fall, and that had winery staff across the valley (including ours) scrambling to find space for load after load of perfect grapes coming in.  Tastes from the barrels of the 2012 vintage haven’t disappointed:  these young wines are showing a delightful intensity and depth of flavor.

Assistant Winemaker Bobby has finished up the racking on the 2012s and now he and Joel can turn their attention to working on the 2011 blends, purchasing new equipment and all of the good stuff that comes with preparing the winery for the 2013 harvest.

The rest of us at Amici are busy getting ready for our Spring 2013 new releases and looking forward to sharing some seriously good stuff with our friends.  Spring is in the air!

Harvest 2012: Nearing the Finish Line

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The photo above was our view this morning as we harvested Cabernet from the beautiful Oakville Ranch vineyard, 1400 feet above the valley floor. While the fun chaos of crush season is still in full swing around the winery, we’re close to wrapping up harvest in the vineyards. Every day this week brings a new vineyard and a new adventure: Atlas Peak came in earlier this week, today was Oakville Ranch, tomorrow we’ll harvest Morisoli Vineyard, and Sunday brings Old Toll Road and Spring Mountain. While we’re still enjoying days in the 80’s now, current forecasts call for a storm to move in on Monday. We’ll get all the grapes in before the rains, and smiles are all around as we couldn’t be happier with the vintage. Every single vineyard reached optimal ripeness and, true to predictions earlier in the summer, crop yields are very large. Flavors from the grapes are explosive, so everyone is anxious to try the 2012 vintage wines as soon as possible. Could this be Napa’s benchmark vintage? Time will tell!

Nearing Sauvignon Blanc Harvest

Sauvignon Blanc harvest in Napa Valley is only days away!  Winemaker Joel Aiken takes us into the vineyards to tell us how he knows when it’s time to make the call to pull in the grapes.

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 Blanc Harvest

Harvest 2012 Update: Verasion

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Verasion in the vineyards is well underway! Verasion is the process of grapes ripening and sugar levels rising and from this shot taken in the Morisoli Vineyard on Saturday, you can see that the cluster is almost completely colored up. The photo shows an example of what is a typical cluster for this year, large and healthy-looking. Note that even though the cluster is fairly large, there is still plenty of space between the berries for air movement and for filtered sunlight to get in which helps color development. According to Joel, it looks like this season is about two weeks ahead of last year at this point, and the weather forecast is for continued warm and sunny days. Stay tuned for more harvest updates here as we head towards Harvest 2012!