When Instinct Reigns King: Checking in on Harvest 2020

If great wine is made in the vineyard, then the plots are also where the stress begins -- and for producers, harvest is the annual swell. Weather hazards, natural disasters, and this year, a global pandemic, are just a few of the many reasons why producers lose sleep during this taxing time of year. We’ve been watching from a distance and recently got to thinking about what’s actually behind the fruits of these hardworking teams’ labor, and after speaking with a few of our vigneron friends, one thing’s for sure: harvest definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. 

Camille Thiriet, winemaker at MC Thiriet in Comblanchien (Burgundy), tells us that there’s a meticulous strategy that goes into knowing when to pick. “The difficulty is knowing when exactly to harvest, because there is so much heterogeneity across (and even within the same) plots,” she says. Last week, some grapes’ potential alcohol levels read at 13.5%, while fruit from the same site clocked in at 11.5%. Although a 2% difference seems small, this detail is an absolute game-changer in how her final wines will turn out. 


This vineyard heterogeneity also adds to the duration (and stress) of her harvest period. She notes that in the past, all fruit was generally picked within a week. However, this year’s harvest will last from August 20th and September 7th (approximately). For Thiriet, patience, focus, and extreme discernment for picking at just the right moment are key, as well as tasting the grapes daily.

Napa-based Dan Petroski has a different situation. Contrary to Thiriet, his homogenous harvest happens all at once -- and the pressure for space, as well as damaged fruit, takes over. “If we see a heat weave, the grapes that are hanging out towards the end will definitely have a different potential ABV,” he says. Petroski attributes this to his vineyards’ unique microclimate, which causes all fruit to ripen at once. Sounds good in theory, right? Think again. 


Petroski reveals that this constant homogeneity forces him to end up ‘playing favorites’ with his blocks. “I have to prioritize plots and decide which should be picked first so that they are not potentially overexposed to heat,” he says, explaining that just yesterday (04 September), he ended up picking a specific block 4-5 days earlier than he’d have liked, simply because higher-priority plots will inevitably monopolize his time this upcoming week. 

Elsewhere in France, Brendan Stater-West tells us that his harvest anguish is similar to Thiriet’s. “Last year, I was finding a big difference between what was on paper [fruit analysis in lab] and what I was tasting, which was a big source of stress for me,” he says. Ultimately, Stater-West followed his gut and picked a few days earlier than his mentor Romain Guiberteau, and lucky for him, the results were to his liking. He additionally recalls this same anxiety over when to pick during his first vintage (2015). “It’s not so easy to make a call when you’re a rookie and it’s your first vintage,” he says, noting that things can dramatically change with just a brief moment in time. And they did.

That first morning, Stater-West’s ripe and ready-to-pick vines were drenched in rain, which massively threw off his plans. “The new questions were, do I wait? Do I possibly allow botrytis to settle in? Do I pick knowing that most of the fruit is diluted of sugars and acidity?” he recalls. Ultimately, instinct reigned king, and he allowed the sugars to build back up in the grapes. “I’m glad I did. I gained a bit in volume and actually ended up having lower ABV in my wines, as well as really bright acidity compared to others (who had much more of a ‘warmer vintage’ reflection in their juice) who waited,” he affirms.   


Just like weather is out of human control, so are natural disasters -- and a global pandemic is no exception. In addition to the already existing stresses, Petroski notes that following social-distancing guidelines and wearing masks is also mandatory. Furthermore, the pandemic has also left him short-staffed, as no international interns will be joining him due to travel restrictions.

And it doesn’t stop there. Wildfires raging through California have forced everyone at Larkmead to wear N95 masks, as well as take extra precautions. “You have to make sure that masks are on, doors are closed, and that smoke isn’t wafting through the cellar -- and this is just the stress on the winery side!” In the vineyards, farmers are equally anguished (and suffering) from the effects of 2020. Petroski notes that the St. Helena-based laboratory that he uses to analyze fruit is receiving up to 3,000 smoke taint samples per week, which has caused the usual 2 to 3 day turnaround result time to skyrocket to 21 days. As of today, over 375,000 acres (33%) of Napa’s vines have been affected. 

Freak hailstorms and rain showers are also rare yet unwelcome threats during Napa’s harvest period. Petroski recalls the early autumn rains of 2011 led to a week of humidity, which then gave way to rot. At Larkmead, no reserve wine was produced in 2011, and a majority of the appellation-level wine was declassified to bulk wine. “It had a trickle down effect,” he says. “Yields were down up to 30-40%, and more than half of our crop was not vinified.” Petroski adds that while this used to be a relatively common occurrence in Europe during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, these instances have since decreased due to global warming, modernized cellar equipment (sorting tables, etc.), and responsible farming practices. 

The list goes on. Earthquakes in 2014 (Napa) and torrential rains in 2002 (France) followed by a massive heat wave (2003), have left winemakers worldwide stressed and on their toes. “We’re dealing with very apocalyptic extremes of grape growing,” he says. “It happens so regularly now that I almost forget what happened when!” Next time you pop the cork on that casual bottle of wine, remember the unwavering labor and discernment that went into it -- and raise a glass to the hardworking teams who produced them along the way.