From August to early November, diligent crews of Napa Valley head into the vine rows to harvest the fruit of their year-long efforts. From wintertime pruning and preparation through the early bud break and, eventually, the emergence of those delicious grapes that will evolve into world-class wines, vineyard managers and workers are hard at work.
While Harvest Season in Napa Valley is a busy time for the vineyard and winery staff, the businesses and communities gear up to offer a broad range of fascinating, exciting, and fun things to do in Napa Valley for couples, groups of friends, and families during their visit to the area.
In late fall and early winter, guests and locals enjoy a few of the area’s many harvest parties, enjoy a safe and educational winery tour and wine tasting, sample the live musical fare, and dine at a few of the many highly acclaimed restaurants throughout the area.
Don’t forget to reserve your place for one of the many fun things to do in Napa Valley, a peaceful yet exciting Napa hot air balloon ride. You and your fellow passengers can drift slowly above the vineyards, wineries, and villages bordered by the mountainous landscape that surrounds Napa Valley.
After the Harvest, What Happens?
By mid-November, just about all the grapes have been harvested and sent off to their destinations. The ones meant for future wines reach the wineries where they are analyzed, de-stemmed, crushed, and routed into vats for fermentation, with or without skins depending on the varietal. From that point, the winemaker’s skill is in play to make the necessary adjustments in fermentation, aging, blending, and bottling to achieve their objectives.
The vineyard managers and crews have only a short time to catch their collective breath before beginning the preparations for next year’s crop. The vineyards are becoming dormant, and the rows need to be cleared.
Once the winter frost has taken hold, the crews begin cutting away or pruning back the prior season’s growth to allow for the next crop’s development and eventual bud break and flowering that will occur in the springtime.
Stages of Harvest
Vineyard managers weigh several factors in determining when the time is right to begin harvesting. The top three grape varieties in Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot, currently make up almost 75% of all the grapes grown here. The second threesome of varieties, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, make up another 10% of the total, while over three dozen grape types make up the other 15%.
The best time to begin the grape harvest differs from vineyard to vineyard and from variety to variety. For example, location, elevation, soil types, microclimate or average temperatures, and rainfall affect the growth and maturation of the grapes vary from place to place. For example, Chardonnay grapes in one location may be ready to pick weeks before they ripen fully in another.
And generally, grapes for white and sparkling wines are ready for picking well before the red grape varieties. Among the reds, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Zinfandel grapes are usually ready for harvest before the last group, the ever-popular, richest-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are available.
The Napa Valley Harvest Season runs from mid-August to early November. The first grapes picked are often from the Carneros AVA, where Pinot Noir for making popular sparkling wines, and the first Chardonnay grapes are selected. The picking then moves to cooler regions for other aromatic white varieties.
After the lighter-bodied reds are picked, the harvest process moves to the valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by the hillside Cabernet grapes.
Nearly all Napa Valley grapes are picked by hand. Most harvest crews work at night to avoid daytime heat and minimize their exposure to snakes and insects. Also, the cooler night temperatures reduce the need for refrigeration and keep the grapes from starting to ferment too early.
If you happen to be floating among the clouds in a Napa hot air balloon during harvest season, you may notice the vineyards’ appearance changing as the season progresses.
The Art the Turning the Harvest into World-Class Wines
“Great wines are made in the vineyard” is a popular phrase among enthusiasts. But the winemaker’s job is to manage the juice’s handling, fermentation, and aging to optimize the grapes’ qualities.
Many of the world’s most highly respected winemakers perform their magic in Napa Valley. Knowing that the best raw materials make the best wines, winemakers in this world-class region tend to be far more selective than those in areas, allowing only about one-half the California statewide average to produce their wines.
Winemaking is a 365-day process. During the harvest period, winemakers race continuously from vineyards to crush pads, selecting the raw material and ensuring the grapes arrive in good shape and are handled correctly.
From that time, through fermentation and aging, the winemaker is forever tasting, testing, and making decisions that will narrow the gap between reality and the targeted characteristics.
The grapes and growing conditions, plus the multitude of winemaking styles and decision-making processes, create the significant diversity that makes Napa Valley’s 29-mile strip of land an exciting place for wine enthusiasts to explore.
Learning the Terminology
Winemaking, like any other specialized endeavor, has its own vernacular. Certain terms may be very familiar to winemakers and enthusiasts, but perhaps not to the average consumer.
If you are hearing or reading about vineyard management and winemaking, here are some, certainly not all, words that may pop up when you come to Napa Valley. Perhaps you might even “drop” a few of these to impress your friends as you head to Napa Valley for fun things to do in Napa Valley.
AVAs or American Viticultural Areas are designated appellations or growing areas where grapes are sourced. These designations are established by the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the U.S. Treasury Department. While Napa Valley first became an official AVA in 1981, the region has since been divided into 16 “nested” AVAs from Calistoga in the north to Carneros in the south.
ACIDITY is the fresh, tart, and sour properties that determine how well the acidity balances out the sweet and bitter components of the wine. The acidity helps the wine age gracefully and can leave a lightweight feeling on the palate.
BALANCE is a sensory quality manifested by the synergy of acidity, fruit concentration, and tannins.
BRIX is a scale developed by Adolph Brix in the early 1800s. In the wine industry, BRIX is used to identify the sugar level in grapes (and other products). The measure determines the ripeness of the grapes at harvest and can signal the optimal time to pick.
BUD BREAK is the “moment” in the spring when new growth appears on the vines, signaling the end of dormancy.
CLONAL SELECTION is propagating a vine with exceptional characteristics by cutting off a piece from the “mother vine” and either planting directly into the soil, where it’ll sprout its own roots, or grafting onto another vine.
HANG TIME is the period from the initial flowering to the harvest.
HOT BINNING is a process where grapes are placed in a half-ton bin of hot water for soaking.
PUMP OVERS involve pumping wine from the bottom to submerge the floating grape skin cover, enhancing the flavor and color of red wines.
PUNCH DOWNS occur during fermentation when the skins and solids that cover the top surface are pushed downward to keep them wet and to integrate the tannins and color into the liquid.
TANNINS are the natural compounds in grape skins manifested in bitterness and complexity in many red wines.
TERROIR is the “sense of place” that influences the final qualities of the wines. Terroir is the combination of the soil type, climate, terrain, elevation, hillside angle, and wind and sun exposure of the vineyards.
Make Reservations for your Napa Hot Air Balloon Experience
Probably the most memorable and fun thing to do in Napa Valley is a safe and fascinating Napa hot air balloon ride with balloons Above the Valley. From your early morning rendezvous and boarding to the safe, soft landing at the designated spot, you and your fellow passengers will enjoy the experience. You will lift off gradually and enjoy the majestic and panoramic view of the vineyards, communities, towns, and surrounding mountains.
You will drift comfortably along, piloted by your Balloons Above the Valley certified pilot, enjoying the scenery while pointing out some destinations you have enjoyed or expect to visit.
For more information about your Balloons Above the Valley experience, visit their website at https://balloonrides.com/ to learn about their safety programs, schedule your future flight, or purchase Gift Certificates to be used for any future outing.
If you have questions about a Balloons Above the Valley flight, which happens to be one of the most fun things to do in Napa Valley, phone one of the reservationists at 1-800-464-6824.