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A Quick Guide to a California Wine Harvest

Everyone knows California to be America’s biggest wine producer. Home to over half our country’s AVAs (American Viticulture Areas,) you can only imagine there’s a lot going on during harvest season. Grape growers and winemakers all over the state have tons to do during this period. Of course, what happens varies each year, as the weather and climatic changes affect individual wine areas differently. Regardless, as wine lovers, there are California wine harvest facts you should know to enhance your knowledge of your favorite beverage!

Here’s a Quick Guide to a California Wine Harvest


Harvest Time in California

So, when does harvest happen in California? The exact dates depend on where you are in the state, what grape you’re harvesting, what kind of wine you’re making, and what sort of weather the year brings. However, generally speaking, harvest happens between the months of August and November.

Visiting the Vineyards and Testing the Grapes

California wine harvest never happens randomly – winemakers are tracking the development of vines and grapes all year round. In the summer, as harvest inches closer, winemakers visit the vineyards more often to check on the grape ripening process.

For winemakers, seeds hold secrets. Many winemakers will taste test the maturity of grapes by chewing on their seeds. The less bitter, the more mature.

But, of course, wine is part science. Winemakers usually test the Brix of the grapes prior to harvest. This measurement tells us how much sugar there is in the grapes, providing the winemaker a more firm understanding of grape maturity. Also, the sugar content can give a rough estimate of the alcohol percentage of the final wine will be.

With that said, the Brix number a winemaker may choose to pick grapes at depends highly on wine type and winemaking style. For sparkling wines, you want a much lower Brix because you’re focused on acidity and lower alcohol. On the other hand, if you’re trying to make a higher alcohol off-dry wine, you would want a higher Brix.

Watching the Forecast

Grape-growing is agriculture. And, anything you grow outside relies heavily on climatic conditions. Winemakers usually pay attention to the weather and make predictions much prior to harvest. Knowing the right time to harvest is crucial.

A perfect example is when the forecast says there will be rain. The rain not only affects the day of a planned harvest, but it can also affect the grapes. If it’s raining the day before, it could negatively impact the grapes. They can take in too much water, swelling the berries and diluting the flavors. Worse, it can cause mildew or mold on the bunches, spoiling a chunk or all of the vineyard.

Grape Varietal Matters

All grapes aren’t harvested at the same time. While this happens to a variety of factors, there’s one basic one that influences it all – the grape type. Each grape varietal has its own characteristics that tell winemakers when they should be harvested.

For example, Pinot Noir is a very small thin-skinned grape. It ripens early and is very susceptible to disease (as its thin skins can be easily penetrated by pests, infection, or hungry birds!) With this in mind, winemakers know that Pinot isn’t a grape to harvest late.

Sparkling Wines Always Come First

When the California wine harvest starts, it always begins with grapes for sparkling wine. As mentioned before, the priority for sparkling wine is to use grapes that have more acidity and not a lot of sugar. Of course, they need to be ripe. But, the goal isn’t to produce a full-bodied, 14.5 percent alcohol wine. Ideally, winemakers want to produce a base wine that is around 10% to 11.5% alcohol.

night time wine grape harvesting

Harvest at Night

Something very common during a California wine harvest is picking grapes at night. With the intense heat that many California wine regions experience, night harvests can guarantee a couple of key things. First, it’s safer for those harvesting to work in cooler conditions. Second, the grapes can stay cool as harvest takes place. This is vital for the quality of the grapes. When grapes sit out in the sun, resting on top of each other, their quality begins to degrade. A winemaker’s worst nightmare is grapes that actually begin to ferment in the bins themselves!

Not everyone harvests at night in California, though. California is home to a wide range of microclimates, with some much cooler than others. These cooler zones can carry out morning harvests without risking quality.

Straight to the Winery

No matter if you harvest early in the morning or late into the evening, the goal is always to get the grapes to the winery as soon as possible. If you can’t, you at least want the grapes in a cool temperature-controlled environment. Doing this ensures that you retain all the delicious flavors and characteristics in the grapes as you turn them into wine.

Feeling inspired by harvest? It’s the most exciting time of year for winemakers and wine lovers alike. And, just so you know – you can become a winemaker easily yourself. Bacchus Winemaking makes your winemaking dreams come true with ease.

Discover how you can make wine this upcoming harvest season!