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The Wine Harvest

The Wine Harvest

It's harvest season in wine country

Rebecca Chapa | Chef's Blade

Driving home today after teaching a class at COPIA in Napa I stopped by the Stanly Lane farm stand and was struck by how quickly the seasons had changed. The last two days of rain had made the once dusty field of pumpkins into a straw-filled marsh and the produce stand was almost empty, just a couple of squash , four puny ears of corn and a cucumber or two.

Every year, harvest is a whirlwind in the Napa Valley. Vintners and vineyard managers who have waited all year for this moment debate over when to harvest, and when it’s time, it’s like a runaway train – it doesn’t stop for anyone. Timing the harvest properly is perhaps the single most important decision they will make all year. While vineyard management is important, the harvest parameters determine the ultimate quality of the wine given that in wine production you can’t really add flavor. Winemaking techniques can soften rough tannins, oak barrels can add some flavor, but the inherent flavors of the fruit itself cannot be bolstered with additions. These techniques act more like a seasoning from the spice rack.

It is important to find a balance between acidity and sweetness in wine grapes to help create a balanced wine. Just like any fruit, as grapes ripen the acids decrease and the sugars increase. Those sugars will ultimately be converted to alcohol by the yeast the microbes responsible for fermentation. Acidity is important because it creates a wine that is lively rather than a wine that is dull, think of an overripe, mealy peach.

It is even more important to be sure that the fruit being harvested has flavor. While ripeness often refers to that level of sugar ripeness and acidity, maturity is the term often used to represent the flavor maturity of a grape.

Consider mass-produced tomatoes. When I lived in New York as a kid I remember there were these little plastic sleeves of tomatoes in the grocery store, three each. These tomatoes were harvested in South America under ripe and green. Upon transport they were gassed and would ripen artificially, they would get red, sugars would increase and they would become softer. But if you have ever had tomatoes like these you know they had zero flavor. It was not the same as those amazing New Jersey vine-ripened Beefsteak tomatoes that you got in August. Sometimes you may have had to add a bit of vinegar to them since they were so sweet, but their flavors just POPPED!

Similarly, wine producers in warmer climates are allowed to add acidity back to the wine if they have to wait some extra time to get that extra flavor maturity in the grapes. In California, we often have the luxury of waiting late into the season for flavor. We generally have a long harvest season, as it usually doesn’t start to rain until the first weekend of November.

Now that the rain is here, hopefully most producers have their wines safely in barrel and can now enjoy the fruits of the harvest.