Despite drought, right now it looks like another good year in prospect for California wine.
California's string of good vintages is on course to continue. Harvest kicked off in Napa Valley today (Wednesday) and all signs appear good again.
As usual, Mumm Napa Valley was the first to harvest, because grapes for sparkling wine are not picked as ripe as for still wine. About two weeks earlier than average, some of the Pinot Noir grapes were brought in first.
"The whole season was shifted earlier," Mumm Napa Valley winemaker Ludovic Dervin told Wine Searcher. "It's not like we had faster ripening. We're expecting a healthy crop in both quantity and quality."
Jon Ruel, who stepped down last month as president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, said the growing season weather in Napa so far has been just about perfect.
"One thing we have right now is very happy grapevines," said Ruel, president of Trefethen Family Vineyards.
California's ongoing 2-year-long drought is posing problems for other agricultural products, but a splash of rain in early spring, just before new buds burst out from the vines, was perfectly timed, Ruel said.
"The vines don't know it's a drought, they got some moisture just as they were waking up. They've been ahead of schedule all year and they keep cruising in the warm weather."
Plus, while temperatures have been reliably warm, Ruel said so far Napa Valley has avoided spikes of extreme heat, with afternoon highs almost every day between 80 and 95 degrees.
"The way the ripening has gone has me extremely optimistic about quality," Ruel said. "One of the things we're looking for with Cabernet quality is evenness. We've got clusters that are all on the same page."
In Sonoma County, winemaker Adam Lee said Pinot Noir is also ahead of schedule. "Last year it was the first time we'd picked a Pinot Noir in August," he said. "This year we'll pick in August again."
Lee said the character of the 2014 Sonoma Pinots may be different from some previous years, perhaps as an effect of the drought.
"The thing I've noticed about this year, and it reminds me of 2013, is you don't have big berries," said Lee, who makes more than 25 wines from around the state. "You may be talking about more tannic wines, darker wines and more concentrated wines."
But Lee says he's worried about the impact on wine quality if the drought continues next year.
In California's hot San Joaquin Valley, where the drought is leading to smaller crops (and larger prices) of fruits and vegetables that need lots of irrigation, wine grapes are hanging in there. This area is responsible for most of supermarket-level California-appellation wine.
Back in Napa, while wineries that make bubbly and white wines are gearing up to pick, for those who only make Cabernets harvest is still more than a month away. Because California rarely experiences much rain until October, this is an unusual year where winemakers don't seem particularly worried about the weather.
"Our vineyard team just all went down together to Baja (Mexico)," said Michael Silacci, winemaker at Opus One. "All we talked about was Tequila."