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Napa Valley growers optimistic after scattered sprinkles dampen wine grapes

Napa Valley growers optimistic after scattered sprinkles dampen grapes
Napa Valley growers optimistic after scattered sprinkles dampen grapes 02:57

ST HELENA -- With tropical storm Hilary moving into Southern California before heading east into Nevada, much of the Bay Area was spared from its effects. Still, abnormal weather is happening in the North Bay and that has raised concerns among wine lovers about the impact on this year's vintage.

The heavy overcast on Sunday was just enough to take the edge off the predicted 90-degree weather in St. Helena. Visitors to the V. Sattui winery found they didn't need to huddle under the shade trees to stay cool..

"We have a few days that are incredibly hot and then, today, I'm thinking this is part of Hurricane Hilary in San Diego?" said Napa resident Christine England.

It wasn't actually part of the Hilary storm front which was far to the south and east of the Bay Area but Hilary could have influenced how gray and humid it was in late August. Light rain fell briefly on parts of Napa and Sonoma counties Sunday morning.

"I actually had a few raindrops on my drive in this morning," said Brooks Painter, director of winemaking at V. Sattui.  He said that, from the start, it looked like the storm would miss the region but, in farming, you just never know.

"We look at the weather five times a day so it's always a consideration," he said.

As it was, the trace amount of rain that fell was no threat to the vineyards. With the unusually cool summer so far, Painter said the grapes are maturing more slowly, about two to three weeks behind schedule. The cabernet clusters contain different-color  grapes -- an early stage where they are ripening at different rates. They're still too hard and immature to face any threat from rain. It is only when they get very close to harvest that they become vulnerable to mold and mildew from an unexpected storm.  

"Our typical harvest starts around September 1," Painter said.  "If we had a tremendous rainstorm September 15 or September 20, it could have really bad effects on the grapes."

The winemaker said this year's delayed season will be good for the quality of the wine grapes, giving them time to ripen more slowly -- they call it "hang time." But it also postpones the harvest, pushing it closer to the autumn rains.

This year, as always, they will have their fingers crossed. The vines themselves are quite resilient, with some living more than 100 years. When they're dormant in the winter, no amount of rain or cold seems to affect them and, even if something happens during the growing season to damage a crop, it will have little impact on the following year's fruit.

"If we have a very wet season or have some problems in one particular year, it doesn't necessarily bode poorly for the following year," Painter said. "Each year has its own opportunity to be as good or bad as it wants to."

That feeds right into the farmers' eternal sense of optimism. No matter what challenges the changing climate throws at them, in their minds, next year's crop will always be even better.

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