Napa winery hosts historically early grape harvest

NAPA, Calif. (KTVU) -- Is it climate change, or simply the usual changes in the weather that brought about the Napa Valley's earliest harvest ever?

By 8 a.m., farm workers had already picked 12 tons of Pinot noir grapes, typically the first grapes to be harvested for Mumm Napa Valley's sparkling wines.

"2015 will be a record breaking harvest year for Mumm because July 22nd is the earliest we've ever picked. Not by far; in 1997 we picked on July 23. But I think we're looking at history on a very short period of time" said Mumm's Chief Winemaker Ludovic Dervil.

Dervil says he believes that the season is early because February was very warm causing early bud sprouting. Back then, because of the drought, the earth was very dry and everyone was trying to conserve as much water as possible, it was a challenge for the root system.

"So the vines started the growing season somewhat in survival mode. The good news for vines is that they are very drought tolerant," said Dervil.

Though he isn't ready to declare that global warming has caused a string of early harvests, he does say earlier harvests have become common.

"In recent years, it has been trending early.  But, of course, if I say that, next year we will start at the end of August like we've done also in the past," Dervil said.

A bit later, at the winery, staff members hold a saber ceremony, a long practiced rite marking the passage of grapes from growers to    wineries, dating back to how Napoleon's victorious mounted soldiers opened bottles of champagne handed up to them. Then, a blessing of the wine to be spraying it with the wine that is.

By the time the grapes get from vine to bottle, it will have been from 3 to 7 years depending on the aging process.

Regardless of weather or climate, it's always a serious challenge.

"It's Mother Nature. It's dealing with Mother Nature. That's why our job is so interesting, because it's different every year. We have way more tools that we can utilize. We can utilize modern technology to help not change Mother Nature, but to carve out the diamond that sometimes is really difficult to get," said Dervil.

But four years into a serious drought, we're approaching a time when even the most hearty vines cannot survive many more dry years.