Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cool Tech for Napa's Chilly Grape-Growing Year

California's Napa Valley is world-famous for its justly celebrated wines - and wines, of course, begin with grapes, which brings me to today's post:

Namely, the cool, rainy, late-harvest 2011 grape-growing season in Napa and the growers' response to it. If they succeed in meeting the challenges of such a year, as they believe they will, there's all the more reason to visit the valley to savor its wine and food, lovingly manicured vineyards and pretty towns.

Some 550 grapegrowers and related businesses belong to Napa Valley Grapegrowers, a nonprofit trade organization headquartered downtown in the city of Napa. ("Napa'' is actually three places: city, valley, county.)

Every spring and fall, the association (, founded in 1975, holds a lovely outdoor press conference and luncheon to talk grapes. Journalists accustomed to attending press conferences in windowless hotel ballrooms and beige government offices emerge blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight, like moles on holiday. I attended the spring "bud break'' gathering this year but missed the recent fall press conference, held at Stagecoach Vineyards. So, I caught up with NVG spokeswoman Jennifer Putnum to find out what happened.

Northern California typically gets nearly all its rain in winter, but significant spring rainfall and even rare summer showers - coupled with cool temperatures - have posed challenges to grape growers, she says. Chief among them is what she terms "mildew pressure.'' Lots of mildew could, of course, ruin the harvest.

Eyeballing the vines and using remote sensors and data collection devices allow growers to use cool high-tech to save the grapes in chilly seasons. This includes everything from removing canopies so the grapes can get more warming sun to relying on decidedly non-tech means like just hoping for good weather. The growers got some of that this week when temperatures hit the mid-90s F in Napa Valley. "We can't control the weather,'' she says, "but we can control our response to it.''

One Napa wine-grape grower, Paul Goldberg, of Rutherford Vista Vineyards, notes Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma Valley's presence in a region that also includes Silicon Valley. "We are blessed to be in a region that affords us the opportunity to be innovative with technology. It is extremely important to be able to monitor the various microclimates in the valley in order to be proactive instead of reactive,'' Goldberg says by way of example.''

"An example of innovative vineyard technology,'' the NVG notes in a press release, "is Paul's remote control irrigation system, recently implemented to monitor every aspect of irrigation, including well levels, water pressure, soil moisture and more. Through this system, Paul can also set alerts to his phone to notify him of any unusual changes to the irrigation system ...''

"Some of the vineyards are among the most-measured vineyards in the world,'' Putnam says, adding that Napa growers also work closely with agronomists at the University of California-Davis - one of the leading agricultural campuses in the United States - to deal with ongoing issues such as pests, rootstock and soil analysis.

Growing grapes - and, later, using those grapes to make wine - is part science, part poetry. When it works, it's like bottling magic. We'll have to wait to see if the 2011 vintages are magical, but the grape growers say they are encouraged so far. This year's smaller, less-dense grape clusters are also helping to control mildew, and the growers believe that having several additional weeks on the vine will helping to produce high-quality grapes.

Their bottom line, and why it will matter to wine-loving travelers: This is a smaller than usual but high-quality harvest. The wines should shine.

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