Here’s a look at the grape harvest ahead from an insider’s point of view. Peruse our  Q&A with Mumm Napa winemaker Ludovic Dervin.

Q: What is it about this time of year that only insiders (those who work with grapes) know about the season? What is it about this time of year that people on the outside just don’t get?

A: Working with grapes is like any other agricultural crop. We pay a lot of attention to all the little details that surround us every day and try to understand the subtle messages from Mother Nature. The time of the day the wind starts to blow, from which direction. The color of the leaves on the different trees, the birds flocking on the electrical lines getting ready for migration, etc… If you pay enough attention each year, you eventually develop a certain feel for what is about to happen. I always like to listen to the guys who work with and water the vines all year long. They usually can predict the local weather better than the weatherman on TV.

To the outsider, harvest season often looks like one big party filled with excitement and romance, but when you really get into it, it is more like a 2 months battle against time, and while it certainly has its fair share of joy, it also unmistakably brings every year its load of sweat and tears. And just like preparing for battle, the harvest soldiers need to get plenty of rest, boost their moral, and make sure all their equipment and gear is well greased and in perfect working condition. When you love what you do, and you are perfectly prepared for it, those 16 to 18 hour days can go by very quickly. If not, harvest will mentally and physically destroy you.

I think we all have our favorite parts about harvest. For me, it is the time when we meet all our new temporary employees and learn to all come together as a team. They might come in as temporary help for the harvest season, but they leave as new members of our Mumm Napa family. The harvest seasons is such a demanding time that we can only fall apart and crumble as individuals or succeed as a team. It really teaches us how to depend on each other.

The most challenging part is to keep sanity at home with our families during that time. When my wife and I got engaged, I warned her that she would be also marrying into a new lifestyle during the harvest season, which is pretty close to being a temporary widow. So the first harvest season after we got married, she got together with a group of friends who are also married in the wine business, and they started a “Harvest Widows Club.” A good sense of humor is also a key to a successful harvest season.

Q: How do you decide when to pick? What is your picking decision ritual?

A: Picking decisions at Mumm Napa are made essentially by walking the vine rows and tasting the grapes. We also take representative grape samples every other day from each vineyard bloc and bring them back to our laboratory to analyze the basic sugar and acid chemistry, but these numbers are just basic guidelines to evaluate fruit maturation trends. When we craft wines for our consumers, we always keep that consumer in mind. When our wines are ready to drink, our consumers judge them for how they taste, not the varietal percentage numbers or acidity level number. So it is very important that we decide on when the grapes are ready to pick based on how they taste, and not what our pH meter tells us. 

Q: For the uninitiated, why are sparkling wine houses always the first to pick? What varietals?

A: For sparkling wines, winemakers look at the flavors, sugar and acid balance of the juice within the pulp of the grape berries, and not the color and tannins from the skins which are more important for still wines. The optimum balance to craft superior sparkling wines following the method traditionelle is usually found at lower maturity levels than for still wines. So sparkling winemakers typically pick their grapes 2 to 3 weeks earlier than if they were to make still wines out of these grapes. The resulting wines will also have a lower alcohol content, around 11.5% alcohol. The main varietals we use at Mumm Napa are the noble grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are the most suited for long term bottle aging. But other varietals can be used for younger and fruity sparkling wines, such as Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat.

Q: In the North Bay would you say sparkling wine houses in Napa are typically the first to begin picking grapes because it’s warmer than other bubbly regions like the Carneros and Anderson Valley?

 A: It is not the location of the winery but the location of the vineyards which drive the time of picking. The winery can be located in Napa but it might be harvesting grapes from anywhere in California. Our Mumm Napa brand is strongly committed to the Napa Valley grape growing appellation. While our facility is located in Rutherford in the middle of the Napa Valley, most of our vineyards are located in the southern part of the Napa Valley, where the climate is much cooler. We have a few vineyard blocs located in the area of Yountville, and these typically ripen earlier than the fruit from the Carneros region. These particular grapes are a very important component for our red berries fruit driven Brut Rosé sparkling wine. While these grapes are a small percentage of the final blend, they are essential to its style and personality to highlight the ripe red and black berry fruit tones.

Q: Are you expecting to pick grapes later this harvest season? When did you begin last year? When you begin in recent years? What do you make of this cooler season? (I understand in 2008 it was Aug. 12 and last year it was Aug. 14.)

A: The unusually cool summer season has delayed ripening and we do expect to harvest slightly later than usual this year. A typical year would see us begin harvest in mid August and we are currently looking at the end of August for our first grapes of 2010. Harvest can start anytime from the end of July for an early vintage to the end of August for a late vintage. In 1997, we started to pick grapes on July 23rd. In 2006, we started on August 23rd. I can say this is shaping up to be an exceptional vintage season for sparkling wines. The cool weather is extending hang time and will bring wonderful richness and flavor complexity to our grapes by the time we are ready to harvest for sparkling wines. The cool nights also preserve the precious nature acidity of the grapes, which is essential for the longevity of our wines during bottle aging. But I am sure our still winemaking friends and neighbors are anxious to see some warmer weather for their still wine grapes. The current weather pattern also brings more pressure with the threat of grape disease such as Botrytis rot. But so far all of our growers are doing a great job at keeping their vineyards extremely clean. We are very lucky at Mumm Napa to work with a bunch of growers who are extremely focused on the quality and health of their vineyards.

The other good news is that the vines this year have a very strong and healthy green canopy, so when the heat turns up, the vines should be in great shape to catch up and get to the finish line.