How A Winemaker Plans For Harvest | Hands of Harvest Series #1

Wine is unlike any other consumable good on the market. If you ask us, it shouldn’t fall into a fast-moving consumer goods category at all! Unlike other quickly consumed products like soft drinks and food products, a winemaker only gets one shot a year to get wine right. There is only one harvest, and there are no second chances. For this reason, any seasoned winemaker will pay meticulous attention to preparing for harvest.

2022 is our 44th annual harvest – and Winemaker Jesse Fox’s first at Sequoia Grove. With an 18-year career spanning experience at prestigious wineries like Harlan Estates’ The Napa Valley Reserve, Promontory, and Amici Cellars, Jesse joined our team in February of this year to take Sequoia Grove to new heights. According to Jesse, if you prepare adequately for harvest, you will still be busy, but the only thing under real pressure will be your grapes! Join Jesse and head behind the scenes in our new, three-part ‘Hands of Harvest’ series to learn what it takes to plan for harvest in Napa Valley.

Setting Up for Success 

As the newcomer to the team, Jesse has spent much of his first few months observing and establishing relationships: with his team and our growers.

“One of the best things about the timing of when I joined Sequoia Grove was that I was fortunate enough to do all the blending for the 2021 vintage with the team,” he opens. “This meant I got the opportunity to sit with Cellar Master Luis Fuentes and Assistant Winemaker Kelly Toran and spend my first seven weeks tasting through 150 different lots of wine.”

For Jesse, this was an invaluable process that helped him better comprehend the existing Sequoia Grove ‘house style’. It also allowed him to taste where he could make tweaks and edits to elevate the wines for the upcoming vintage. 

“The blending process gave me a chance to learn about the vineyards with no bias whatsoever. I could ask myself and the team what we liked about each wine or what was missing and made notes as we went to bring with us into this next harvest,” he shares. 

Jesse describes his management style as empowerment-orientated. As the ‘new kid on the block,’ he appreciates that he still has lots to learn about the inner workings of Sequoia Grove. “Some team members have been here for 15 to 30 years. I’m not here to micromanage. Rather, I want each team member to feel comfortable making the good decisions they already know how to make,” explains Jesse.

 

Protocols, Protocols, Protocols 

A successful harvest is all about having the proper protocols in place: starting in the vineyard and ending in the cellar. Jesse jokes that he and the team are full-fledged logistics managers right now. Over the past few weeks, Jesse has spent many hours visiting our growers and vineyard managers to ensure the team has everything they need for harvest:

“My primary responsibility as a winemaker is to line up these vineyards and make sure that the structure of the sourcing is well thought-out,” says Jesse. “It’s about setting up protocols, as once harvest begins, there’s no time to think – you just do.” 

The cellar is also a hub of activity, as the team checks and prepares the equipment. Many wineries experience equipment failures during harvest as most of the equipment has been left in storage throughout the winter, spring, and summer months and is not routinely used. That’s why cleaning and testing all equipment before harvest is critical to ensure everything is in its best condition before grapes come anywhere near it!

“It’s a logistics game. We have to be prepared to handle a lot of Bordeaux varietals as they tend to come in at a similar time. We’re harvesting in Napa Valley for our Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet blends over a period of six weeks. It’s a tight timeline, and we must be prepared to take the grapes in all at once,” Jesse describes. 

Outside of this, the cellar team has ordered new barrels and is hiring extra hands to help: “Be it an intern or assistant winemaker, I believe in a structure where everybody who works in the cellar knows everything about what they’re doing and participates in the monitoring process,” adds Jesse. 

 

The Final Countdown 

According to Jesse, the 2022 growing season has been nothing short of spectacular. Until now, Napa Valley has enjoyed moderate daytime temperatures and cool nights, which create excellent conditions for ripening.

“There weren’t any heat spikes throughout the growing season. July was gorgeous, and I’m optimistic about the quality of the fruit,” reflects Jesse. Cooler-than-average temperatures since the onset of veraison – the start of ripening – have helped to preserve acidity and fresh fruit character. The team started harvesting Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay towards the end of August, with Cabernet Sauvignon only beginning in the third week of September. 

“I like to pick Cabernet Sauvignon after the autumnal equinox, which is that point in the season where you start to lose light. Once the days are shorter, you’re not getting as much maturation for your grapes, and it’s at that point where the vine makes a turn, and I aim to pick. But of course, only time will tell!” ends Jesse. 

The harvest timing is the most crucial decision a winemaker makes each year. The best winemakers are so familiar with the taste of ripeness that they can walk down a row tasting grapes and intuitively know when to pick. Currently, Jesse is spending a lot of time driving in his pickup to check various vineyards’ physiological ripeness and sugar levels. The sweetness comes from the sucrose in grapes and is measured in Brix. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, picked at around 26-27 Brix, makes a wine that has about 14.5% alcohol. According to Jesse, harvest for the red varieties looks to start around the 21st of September and will probably run until the middle of October. 

We’ll check back with Jesse and the Sequoia Grove team in October to get a mid-harvest update. For now, we wish our vineyard and cellar team the best of luck and plenty of grit as the start of harvest 2022 approaches!