While exact dates for the harvest season of the many Napa Valley grape varieties happen to vary from year to year, the sequence of activities is predictable.
Harvest Season, also known as “crush” season, in Napa Valley vineyards can begin in late July and continue all the way to early November during some years. Although Mother Nature plays a dominant role in when the harvest can start and how long it will last, several other factors play a role.
The determining elements include:
Varieties: Wine grapes mature at different rates. Grapes for sparkling and most white varietals tend to ripen sooner than the more full-flavored reds, including Napa Valley’s best Cabernet Sauvignons.
Location: Each growing region in Napa Valley has a unique set of circumstances with differing microclimates, elevations, soil types, and sunlight exposure.
Prevailing Weather: Conditions vary from year to year. Cooler years with excessive fog in some areas may slow the ripening process, delaying the harvest for some weeks. Extreme heat, moisture, cloudiness, and other natural factors can also speed up or slow down the process. Or, a late, cool springtime might delay the initial bud break, which can cause the grapes to mature later.
Elevation: Grapes grown on the Valley floor mature at a different rate than those grown at higher elevations, where sunlight exposure and fog levels usually differ.
Soil types: Vineyards planted in gravelly soils tend to ripen faster than those in heavier, clay-laden soils.
Variety Sequence of Typical Napa Valley Harvests
Not surprisingly, because of the significant variances in conditions throughout the sixteen Napa Valley AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), there will always be overlaps when certain varieties are harvested.
Next is a general sequence of the harvest in vineyards, according to Napa Valley Vintners, throughout St. Helena and surrounding areas of Napa Valley:
The harvest of sparkling wine varieties kicks off the harvest season, bringing together the crews and initiating the crushing process that will continue at least through October. Most of these grapes, typically Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are harvested first in the cooler, southernmost Carneros AVA. Early harvest ensures the brightness and acidity expected in a high-quality sparkling wine.
Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc
Grapes for the aromatic white varietals are typically next in the Napa Valley harvest routine. These grape varieties demand less heat and time on the vine than others to produce their popular citrus and tropical fruit flavors. The harvest occurs when the grapes reach a perfect balance of acid and sugar for consumer enjoyment.
To produce this most popular white varietal, crews generally begin the Chardonnay harvest next. Since the various Napa Valley winemakers produce a wide range of styles of this varietal, the timing for the complete Chardonnay harvest may spread over several weeks. Some wineries seek a light and delicate apple flavor with some acidic brightness. In contrast, others target richer suggestions of pear and caramel from grapes harvested later and then age the juice in wooden barrels. Richer textured Chardonnays exhibit a sense of nectar due to more developed sugars caused by spending more time in the sun.
The typical shift from white grape harvest to red occurs when crews begin to pick the delicate Pinot Noir grapes. Wineries producing single vineyard wines will specify the characteristics of the Pinot Noir grapes, which will determine the timing of the harvest.
For example, early Pinot Noir grapes will possess “fresh, plummy” characteristics, while later harvests yield a denser mouthfeel and black fruit flavoring. As with other varietals, winemakers seek to nail their preferred target of acidity and sugar with suitable raw materials.
Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese
Fall has arrived by now, and earlier red varieties have reached maturity. These reds tend to flower earlier than the popular Cabernet Sauvignon, have thinner skins, and are not heavily dependent on tannin development to achieve their targeted flavor and mouthfeel.
The climax of the harvest season begins with the harvest of the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards of St. Helena and other Napa Valley vineyards.
This activity begins at different times throughout Napa Valley since the timing for picking the best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes depends on a host of variables. To achieve the objective quality of the nation’s most popular wine, winemakers must select grapes that reach the right level of maturity. However, this may occur at decidedly different times throughout the region.
As mentioned earlier, microclimates and soil types play a dominant role in determining the appropriate harvest time to achieve the highest level of quality. For example, the best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in the Valley floor vineyards of St. Helena may be ready before the grapes mature at higher elevations. A vineyard on an east-facing slope that enjoys more hours of sunshine will typically ripen before a west-facing vineyard. Or single vineyard wines produced in rocky soils may mature before those planted in clay-type soils.
As the harvest progresses throughout the vineyards of St. Helena and other areas of Napa Valley, wineries producing the best Cabernet Sauvignon single vineyard wines may receive raw material as late as November, in some years, hopefully before the first frost arrives.
What Happens During “Crush Season” in Napa Valley?
While activity in the vineyards in St. Helena and throughout Napa Valley is bustling from July to November, the communities, businesses, and wineries of Napa Valley will begin their annual harvest celebrations. This season is a great time for visitors to enjoy Napa Valley’s many celebrations and fun activities. Guests can enjoy winery-sponsored concerts and live entertainment, incredible food, delightful art presentations, handcrafted beer, and the World’s Best Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals.
Truly fun-loving adventurers can participate in a “feet-on” adventure by helping to move raw material from the crush pad to the winemaking process with an authentic grape-stomping event, crush party, and tour.
Wheeler Farms Winery in St. Helena
A visit to the historic Wheeler Farms winery of St Helena situated in the heart of Napa Valley is an unforgettable and educational experience. The pioneering Wheeler family’s original winery and neighboring vineyards date back to the late 1800s.
Current Wheeler Farms management is dedicated to preserving the Wheeler heritage, focusing on creating the best Cabernet Sauvignons, single vineyard vintages sourced from hand-selected grapes of nearby St. Helena vineyards.
The winery’s mission is straightforward: “To produce wines that express the terroir of historic Napa Valley vineyards while promoting sustainable farming practices and supporting our wine-growing community.” This philosophy demonstrates Wheeler Farms’ clear commitment to unique, high-quality winemaking and an equally focused desire to be a positive contributor to the local community and the world at large.
Reserve Your J.H. Wheeler Wine Experience
Guests can make reservations for Wheeler Farms’ J.H. Wheeler Wine Experience, a combined winery, vineyard, and garden tour followed by a delightful culinary adventure and winetasting. The dining experience features seasonal savory canapes designed by Estate Chef Tom Harder and is accompanied by a selection of four J.H. Wheeler wines to taste and enjoy.
The Private Tasting, which takes place in the Wheeler Farms’ Hospitality House, may include J.H. Wheeler Rosé of Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and several of the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The entire adventure is priced at $145 per person, although one fee will be waived with the purchase of six J.H. Wheeler wines.
Reservations for visits and wine tastings at Wheeler Farms can b made online at https://www.wheelerfarmswine.com/reservations.
For group adventures, guests should contact the Director of Guest Relations, Stephanie Farmer, by email at email@example.com or phone directly at (707)-200-8500.