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Napa Valley, California

Wine

In The Vineyard

Grapevines

Grapes are not planted from seed, but from shoots grafted onto roots (rootstock), usually obtained from a nursery that specializes in wine grapes.

Planting grapevines is expensive. In the Napa Valley, an acre of undeveloped vineyard property now goes for over $72,000. It costs more than $50,000 to turn that acre into vineyard. Then you have to wait five years for the vines to be in full production.

Because of the high cost of planting, and the fact that grapevines can last and produce for many decades, planting is done only when existing vines absolutely need to be replaced, or a new area is prepared for a vineyard.

Vines will be replaced for three reasons:

Planting is usually done in the spring but can continue on into summer.

Growing grapes is a slow process, and requires a lot of patience. It takes three years for a vine to begin producing, and up to five years for it to reach full production. Add on additional years for the actual making and aging of wine before it's ready to sell, and you can see that no one goes into the wine business for quick profits.

Organic Vineyards

More and more organic winegrapes are being grown in the Napa Valley. Currently over 1,200 acres are organic, and other vineyards are being farmed organically but have not yet received certification.

Organic simply means that no chemicals can be used in the vineyard—no chemical fertilizers, weed killers or insecticides. The only substance that can be used is elemental sulfur, which is organic itself and is used to prevent powdery mildew in the fields.

Biodynamic Viticulture

A growing number of vineyards in the Napa Valley are not only organic, but Biodynamic. This is a method of farming that was proposed by Austrian scientist and metaphysician Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s (he also founded Waldorf Schools). Biodynamics considers the energy and interrelationships of the entire vineyard area as well as its connection to the earth, the sun, the moon, the planets and the seasons. One focus is on the health of the soil and the use of homeopathic solutions to energize the vitality of the soil and the planets.

Like to know about Biodynamic agriculture? Buy Gardening for Life - The Biodynamic Way: A Practical Introduction to a New Art of Gardening, Sowing, Planting, Harvesting by Maria Thun, and A Biodynamic Farm by Hugh Lovel.

California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)

The following Napa County farms have been certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the main organic certification organization in California (www.ccof.org).

Organic Wine

Organic wine is wine that is made from organically grown grapes, and that is also free from chemicals during the actual winemaking process.

Current federal law states that an organic wine cannot be subjected to sulfur dioxide during its fermentation process. It is, however, legal to use elemental sulfur in the vineyard.

Because sulfur dioxide is a necessary component during winemaking to prevent oxidation of the wine (which can cause discoloration and off-odors), no Napa Valley winery currently produces organic wine.

However, if you look for a phrase such as "Wine made from organically grown grapes" on the back label, you'll know that the grapes used in the wine were organic.

Sustainable Winegrowing

Sustainable winegrowing is following practices that are economically viable, socially responsible and environmentally sound.

Its goals are to:

The Napa Sustainable Winegrowing Group (www.nswg.org) was formed by members of the local wine industry to support the increasing number of grape growers who are moving towards totally sustainable vineyards.

If you approve of this form of agriculture, you might want to let those practicing it know that you support them.

Current members of the Napa Sustainable Winegrowing Group are:

Kosher Wine

Kosher wine is a wine that has received special treatment and meets certain cleanliness and production standards so that it can be considered appropriate for use in Jewish religious practices. Its entire production has been supervised by a rabbi or a designated assistant. For the highest of the three levels of kosher wine, the wine must be pasteurized.

Kosher wine will have had no contact with animal byproducts (some wineries, for example, use gelatin to clarify the wine—a kosher wine would use a different clarification agent). It will also be made using special yeast and enzymes.

Currently only one winery in the Napa Valley makes kosher wine. All of the wines produced by Hagafen Cellars in Napa are kosher.

It should be noted, for those of you whose experience with kosher wines has been limited to Mogen David or other sweet East Coast wines, that Hagafen's wines are first and foremost Napa Valley wines. That is, they are delicious, premium wines. And they are also kosher.

Pierce's Disease / Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter

Pierce's Disease is a common bacteria-caused disease in the Napa Valley that has plagued grapegrowers for many years. Traditionally it has been spread by the blue-green sharpshooter, a small bug with a limited range whose habitat is along streams and creeks.

Growers have learned to live with Pierce's Disease (PD), and because the blue-green sharpshooter's range is so limited, PD usually affects only those sections of vineyards very close to water.

Glassy-winged sharpshooter

The Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter—threat to California's wine industry. (Photo courtesy of the University of California.)

The glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS) has changed all this. Originally from Mexico, it moved into the southeastern part of the United States, and has now arrived in California—most notably Riverside County and other counties in Southern California, but in a number of other counties throughout the state as well.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter is about one-half inch long, more than twice the size of its blue-green cousin. It can fly much farther than the blue-green sharpshooter, so that almost all vineyards in the Napa Valley would be within its reach. And it passes the bacterium (Xylella fastidiosa) that causes Pierce's Disease deeper into the system of the plant than does the blue-green sharpshooter. The bacteria multiply and block the water system of the plant, leading to its decline and death.

Sharpshooters also damage grapevines (and many other plants including almonds, citrus and alfalfa) by extracting fluids from the plant, eventually weakening the plant and leading to its death. An adult sharpshooter can extract fluids equal to 200 to 300 times its body weight in a single day. This is the equivalent of an adult human drinking about 4,300 gallons of water per day.

If the glassy-winged sharpshooter takes hold in the Napa Valley, it has the potential to wipe out our grape and wine industries. In the 1880s, the Los Angeles Basin had a thriving, and highly respected, wine industry. It was destroyed by Pierce's Disease, referred to at the time as Anaheim Disease.

State and local authorities are taking all possible steps to prevent the GWSS from spreading throughout California. Because the bug often "hitchhikes" on ornamental plants, all shipments from nurseries into Napa County are inspected. Residents and visitors are urged not to bring any plants into the Napa Valley from infected areas.

Scientists are conducting research and experiments to find biological, genetic and chemical ways of dealing with Pierce's Disease and the GWSS. Others are experimenting with various organic methods of dealing with the threat.

Traps have been placed throughout the county and special inspectors have been hired to monitor the traps as well as incoming shipments of grapes and plants.

Egg masses have been found on plants coming into the valley, but so far no live glassy-winged sharpshooters have been found.

For up-to-the-minute information on preventive efforts in Napa County, see www.bugspot.org.

Roses in the Vineyard

In the Napa Valley, as throughout the wine regions of France, you'll frequently see roses planted along the edge of vineyards. Traditionally they've served as an early warning system to protect the grapevines—the equivalent of a miner's canary.

Roses and grapevines are both susceptible to a fungus called powdery mildew. In fact, roses are more sensitive than grapevines.

Sulfur won't cure powdery mildew, but it can prevent it. So, if a grapegrower noticed that one day his roses had powdery mildew, he knew it was immediately time to spray sulfur on his grapes to prevent them from getting the same disease.

Roses also warn of other diseases and growing problems before they affect the grapevines, and they serve as a habitat for some beneficial insects that eat other undesirable insects.

And they're beautiful.

Seasons of the Vineyard

As with any agricultural crop, growing grapes is very seasonal. Here's an outline of the year.

Winter

Ground cover, such as mustard or clover, is seeded in the vineyard to keep down weeds and provide nutrients to the soil. The vines are dormant.

Winter in the vineyards

Winter in the vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners Association.)

Pruning grapevines

A skilled vineyard worker prunes old branches of the vines. (Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners Association.)

Old branches are pruned, leaving only the basic trunk of the vine and whichever canes are desired. The smoke you may see coming from the vineyards is simply the controlled burning of old grapevines.

Spring

New vines are planted. You may see them wrapped in growing tubes that look like, and sometimes are, milk cartons. The tubes help train the vines and protect against rabbits and other hungry residents of the area.

Powdered sulfur, an organic fungicide, is sprayed on vines to prevent a fungus called powdery mildew. Budbreak takes place as the first small shoots burst forth out of the buds.

Budbreak of grapes in the spring

Budbreak in the spring. (Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners Association.)

This is a time when frost can damage the new shoots, so growers prepare smudge pots (euphemistically called "orchard heaters" by some growers), wind machines and overhead sprinklers to protect against it.

Summer

New shoots appear. Vines begin to flower. Some shoots are pruned so that growth energy is focused on the remaining shoots. Shoots that are too long are trimmed, so that fewer, but higher quality, grapes will result. Some leaves are removed to increase the grapes' exposure to the sun and increase air circulation. This is done because moisture can lead to "bunch rot" or to mildew. Berries appear and begin to grow and swell. In the heat of the summer sun, sugar levels in the grapes begin to rise, and the amount of acid begins to decrease. The grapes soften and approach full maturity.

Fall

Harvest (called "Crush"). The grapes are picked, brought to the winery and crushed, and the juice is fermented into wine.

After picking, the remaining leaves in the vineyards begin to change color. Yellow is normal, red leaves early in the season indicate a problem (disease or lack of appropriate nutrition.)

Red grape leaves

Red leaves in late fall—not always a good sign.

In the Napa Valley, Crush usually starts in August and goes through most of October. Sparkling wine producers pick first, as they use grapes with lower sugar levels and higher acids. Still wine producers usually start several weeks later. Thinner-skinned grapes ripen first, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Thicker-skinned reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon are the last to ripen and be picked.

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