Vintage harvest 2017: California's perfect summer gives way to fiery tragedy

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

21 November 2017

California's wine producers were expecting a good year and struggled to find enough pickers, but late summer heat turned into deadly wildfires that will have long-term impact. Find out more in the penultimate part of Imbibe's northern hemisphere vintage harvest 2017 round-up for the USA, including California, Oregon and Washington:

The Overview: A good harvest was depleted by terrible wildfires but the full impact has yet to be seen.

The Good News: Willamette Valley and Washington State are hoping for good-quality vintages.

The Bad News: Producers are still counting the cost of lost crops, smoke damage and power cuts at a crucial time.


There was a promising start to the growing season for California’s vintners. After five years of drought, the winter was the wettest in 30 years, and this combined with good early-season weather left producers feeling optimistic for the vintage. Hail in June affected some Napa vineyards, but otherwise the conditions over summer were close to perfect.

Early September saw a period of intense heat, which led to heat stress and sunburn, especially with sensitive grapes such as Pinot Noir and in vineyards without adequate irrigation. Producers rushed to harvest grapes before they shrivelled on the vines, and a number complained about the difficulty of finding enough pickers in time.

The heat was followed by a cooler, more humid spell with some rainfall, which caused a few problems with rot but also meant that the Cabernet Sauvignon could continue ripening at a more leisurely pace.

The second week in October brought fires which swept through northern California. Napa and Sonoma had completed 90% of their harvest, while Mendocino had brought in 75% when they struck.

Some of the remaining vineyards were destroyed in the fire while some were too badly affected to be harvested. Of the rest, once the fires had burned out and the worst of the smoke had dissipated, the harvest continued.

The main building at Paras Vinyards burns in the Mount Veeder area of Napa. Source: AFP/Getty
The main building at Paras Vinyards burns in the Mount Veeder area of Napa. Source: AFP/Getty

Much of this last picking will have been affected by smoke taint, and producers will have to decide what is still saleable and what they will have to discard. An additional problem was that the fires cut power supplies at many wineries. Quite what impact this will have had on winery operations remains to be seen, but it was far from ideal.

Oregon and Washington

Despite wildfires which caused devastation in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon's wine country escaped the worst of the damage, although some southern parts of the state saw smoke which may have impacted the wines. But further north, the Willamette Valley experienced a steady growing season resulting in an above average crop of grapes with good flavours and vibrant acidity, and there are high hopes for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

In contrast, the harvest in Washington State looks set to be slightly smaller than average, but the gentle growing season, with warm summer weather followed by cool conditions towards harvest time, augurs well for quality.

Keep your eyes open for the rest of our northern hemisphere vintage reports: FranceItaly, Spain, Austria, Germany, the UK, Greece, Hungary & Croatia.

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