Grapes are harvested once a year, and so that means grape growers only have one shot at yielding the perfect juice for that year vintage.
The Napa Valley harvest year begins in the winter when the vines are pruned back to basically just the main branches, leaving the vineyards looking brown and baron.
In late winter the pathways between vines start filling in with green grasses and some areas yellow mustard flowers. While much of the mustard in the Napa Valley is wild, some vineyard managers will intentionally plant mustard.
The vines start to come alive in early spring with bud break. The first signs of bud break are shared on social media by excited vintners.
Then the foliage really starts coming in. The rows of vines turn into very green lush plants.
Soon you can see the very beginnings of baby grape clusters. It’s during bud break and initial fruit set that frost can threaten the crop. Frost alerts keep vineyard managers aware of potential dangerous weather throughout the night and into the early morning, allowing them to employee their frost combative techniques of choice. During this time of year you may hear what sounds like hundreds of helicopters as fans circulate the air over the vineyards. Some smaller vineyards still use heaters, which are lit to warm the air.
In mid summer the extra shoots and leaves of the vines become so overgrown that they must be cut back so that the vine can focus its energy on developing the fruit.
Just a few months or so before the Napa Valley harvest, you may see what looks like a horrible act of vandalism. Almost half of the grapes that were developing are cut from the vine and are left on the ground below. This crop thinning is done as a quality control step, sacrificing overall grape harvest tonnage for the ultra premium Napa Valley grape harvest.
Slowly over time during the middle of summer the red wine grapes start turning from small green clusters to dark purple bunches. The half way point of this process called veraison makes for some head scratching moments for untrained visitors looking at clusters of grapes that have both green and purple grapes in one bunch.
In the fall, sugar measurements (the brix) are taken as the main initial factor to decide when is the perfect time to harvest the grapes. Avoiding a point past the perfect time, grape puckers work tirelessly through the night harvesting entire crops in a very short time period.
Once harvested, the grapes must be de-stemmed and pressed to yield juice.
The juice is then fermented, utilizing yeast to transform the sugar to alcohol.
Finally, the wine is aged.
The only thing affecting the flavor of the wine from outside influences is the type of oak wine barrel and how that barrel is prepared via a process called toasting.
The last step before you can buy the wine is packaging. Most wine is packaged in bottles, but some wineries are experimenting with stepping outside of tradition.
Come explore and see a Napa Valley Harvest in action by visiting the Napa Valley during this time of year. The wineries will give you an inside look at how it all happens.