Bubbles Keep Flowing in North Coast

Foggy Mendocino County to start wine grape harvest next week

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine sparkling rack riddle harvest
Winemaker Penelope Gadd-Coster welcomes the first wine grapes of 2017 at custom-crush winery and sparkling specialist Rack & Riddle.

North Coast, Calif.—After multiple sparkling wine houses reported the start of harvest Aug. 5-7, more producers of bubbles are scheduling their own picks. Rack & Riddle (R&R), the custom-crush sparkling specialist producing 1.3 million cases per year in Healdsburg and Geyserville, brought in its Chardonnay crop Aug. 10 from a North Coast appellation for client Kelsey Phelps.

On Aug. 14, R&R will pick its first Pinot Noir in Carneros-Napa, followed by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Solano County. Subsequently, Carneros-Sonoma Pinot Noir is expected, then Mendocino County and Alexander Valley Chardonnay. Three weeks out, the final pick is likely to be Sonoma-Carneros Chardonnay, according to Penelope Gadd-Coster, executive director of winemaking at R&R.

The quantity of winter rainfall has made this an interesting growing season, she said, with more than average powdery mildew and vines maturing one or two weeks late. The mildew necessitated early leaf thinning to keep airflow going through the canopies.

Solano County crops are expected to be below average in tonnage due to rainfall and a late start. Despite mildew, quality in all growing areas looks good, with nice fruit emerging now that the weather has cooled down from an early summer heat wave.

Grapes are starting to deliver balanced chemistries: TA and pH are starting to align properly, Gadd-Coster reported.

It’s been a year for patience, but every year brings its challenges, she said.

Domaine Chandon (600,000 cases) brought in its first load of Chardonnay from Clarksburg on Aug. 4, followed by Pinot Noir at its home estate in Yountville on Aug. 6. Later this week, Carneros Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier came in, according to winemaking director Pauline Lhote.

She observed unusually steady ripening. Typically there are a week to 10 days’ difference among blocks. This year, early Carneros blocks are coming in a single day behind Yountville. The early ripening of Carneros blocks and even those on Mt. Veeder are very different than normal.

The fast-ripening harvest will keep sparkling winemakers on their toes, Lhote said. The powdery mildew has made for a challenging year, but the vineyard team has been on top of it.

“We harvest between 18° and 20° Brix. Right now we are close to 18° Brix and looking for bright acidity.”

It’s not surprising that labor, too, has presented challenges. Although Domaine Chandon is not planning more mechanization, “If anyone is interested to work in the cellar, they should contact us,” Lhote said.

Meanwhile in Mendocino…

Roederer Estate (95,000 cases) in Anderson Valley plans to start its harvest Aug. 15, according to vice president/winemaker Arnaud Weyrich. The first grapes in will be Pinot Noir for estate sparkling from the Philo, Calif., area. Weyrich expects about 15 tons, quickly ramping up to 50 tons Aug. 17 with Pinot Noir from Boonville. These microclimates in the foggy coastal area traditionally tend to ripen the earliest.

Weyrich, too, has seen mildew problems because of the cool spring. Because the pick is all for sparkling production, Pinot Noir comes in with an 11°-17° Brix range. Chardonnay is running behind with a 7°-11° Brix range.

Weyrich has encountered labor-scheduling issues, which the winery deals with through early preparation and discussion with labor contractors, he said. He’s not yet planning to go for more mechanization but is on the lookout for new and improved equipment.


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