On Sept. 20, pickers for Sonoma’s Kistler Vineyards headed out to chardonnay vineyards at 2 a.m., their headlamps lighting the way. Night harvesting when it’s cool maintains acidity in the grapes, which gives the winery’s cult whites zing and verve. By 9 a.m., grapes were on the crush pad, already being turned into wine.

I thought they tasted delicious. But as in every wine region during the stressful harvest season, the questions are: How big is the crop and how good will the wines be?

“This year we’re lucky in Sonoma,” says Kistler winemaker Jason Kesner, with a relieved grin. “2019 is a classic north California vintage.”

To track the latest about the northern hemisphere’s wine winners and losers in 2019, I’ve been on the ground, phone, twitter, and email. Mother Nature hasn’t been equally generous to every major region this year.

France was particularly hard-hit. Record-breaking heat waves saw sweaty Parisians splashing in the city’s fountains, while high temperatures scorched grapes in vineyards and literally shut down the growing process for a time. Add spring frosts, hail, and wildfires and, according to the France’s agriculture ministry, the country’s overall output is estimated to fall 12%.

As many French winemakers told me: Welcome to the new extremes of climate change. The good news is that they’ve had some practice in years such as 2003 on how to deal with global warming. Despite everything, quality looks very good.

Napa Valley
“This is turning out to be a near perfect harvest,” emailed Dan Petroski of Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga. “An excellent vintage that will make wines with great structure.” He wrapped up picking late last week after working 20-hour days. A warm, late summer, followed by a cooling trend and a touch of rain last week, created ideal conditions. Whites are already fermenting, and the cabernet harvest is underway up and down the valley, according to Napa Valley Vintners.

There will be plenty of grapes—probably too many—as both Sonoma and Napa face a grape glut.

Yet the danger of possible power cutoffs could affect how good the wines are. Because downed power lines were blamed for destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018, utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. cuts power when fire risk is high. That’s often the case at harvest time, when wineries need electricity to run crushers and temperature-controlled fermentation tanks. For those that lack generators or solar power, an extended outage can bring disaster.

In this normally cool, northeastern region of France, the year’s heat waves were “a trauma for many producers,” according to the well-known % to winemaking family. They report yields are down 30% to 40% from last year, especially for gewuerztraminer. Happily, the grapes’ concentration from the drought and heat will make wines with serious aging potential. Look for superb rieslings and pinot noirs.

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