Earlier in 2017, the growing season was looking fairly normal. Budbreak came at what seemed like a pretty rational time, we had a very wet winter so the specter or drought was pretty far from everyone's minds, and the spring weather was fairly forgiving, even warm in some places. Because of the plentiful winter rains, growth was vigorous in the early going, and I was a little concerned that there would be too much vegetative growth, large clusters, and so on.
As spring rolled into summer, we had a series of heat waves. Nothing too intense (that would come later) but enough that the plants started to feel it and the ground began to dry out. At one point, we had endured almost three times as many hot and dry days as we had last year. One surprise was that as we moved into June, the ground began to dry out more than our wet winter would lead one to believe and many places found themselves in water deficit mode when the expectation was that the water supply to the vines would be, if anything, too plentiful. Making that about face in terms of irrigation strategy and general vine outlook was not easy, and lots of folks continued to stress the plants by leaving cover crop and withholding water longer than maybe was ideal.
Then August came, and the weather turned mild and lovely. The vines especially appreciated the cool weather and everything looked great for a nice gradual lead-in to harvest. Most growers and winemakers felt pretty good about the potential for harvest 2017, and grateful that we had a little time to catch our breath during August before the anticipated early September start of harvest.
Much of the fruit I use comes from early ripening sites so by August 24 I was getting pretty busy. But the mild weather allowed us to take our time and chip away at picking so while we were moving along at a pretty good clip, we also had time to spend some time with the vines and make a plan for how we were going to get it all in.
Then Labor Day weekend came, and with it the worst heat wave I can remember in the 30 plus years I've been making wine in Northern California. Temperatures even in the coolest parts of the Sonoma Coast soared into the 105 degree range. It was even hot at night. Miserable! On top of the heat, there was haze from wildfires far to the north, which made it seem apocalyptic. Then to top it all off, we got a freak thunderstorm afterwards!
I've said elsewhere that we're much smarter about growing grapes now than we were back when I started my career and this was highly apparent during and shortly after the heat wave. Twenty years ago, when leaf pulling was all the rage, we would have had terrible heat damage on the exposed clusters; now, most people leave a little leaf cover over the fruit to provide a small measure of protection from the sun. And several of the sites I work with are planted to narrower row spacing so the adjacent row shades the fruit zone during the hottest part of the afternoon. Of course there was some fruit that got pretty roasted, but many of the sites I work with emerged with very little damage and even the fruit which looked a bit tired coming across the sorting line still tasted fresh. Now, as much of the wine has made its way to barrel, there are few lots which I feel got severely compromised by the heat.
But it wasn't easy. At one point, we brought in 25% of our harvest in three days. Most of the crew worked a month without a day off, and I am working on week 6 in a row. Time will tell whether it was all worth it.