Get ready for your vineyard harvest season crash-course from Cameron Hughes’s Zeke Neeley.
By CHW Team
We recently caught up with Neeley about what’s going on in the vineyards right now during harvest.
Zeke Neeley, the senior winemaker at Kunde Family, is also one of the all-star winemakers at the helm of the Cameron Hughes winemaking team. Joining Neeley in the cellar (and on the hunt for exceptional wines from California to Tuscany) are Mike Lawrence and Marco DiGuilio.
Q: Zeke, talk to us about the growing season from July through harvest this year. Describe the weather for us—what was it like? And tell us how those weather patterns impacted the quality of grapes.
Zeke Neeley (ZN): A warm to mild summer has led to a later-than-usual harvest in 2023. Although we have had warmer daytime highs, Sonoma Valley is behind Napa Valley in ripeness, and I think it’s due to the colder evenings we have had this summer in Sonoma. The upside is that we have been getting mature flavors in fruit with some lower sugar levels, which means this might be a lower alcohol year for the North Coast.
Q: Let’s talk about Cabernet Sauvignon in northern California. How do you determine when to pick Cabernet grapes? What are you looking for in the seeds? The pulp around the seeds?
ZN: The first thing I look for is yellow basal leaves on the Cabernet sauvignon vines. Those leaves, near the fruit zone (where the clusters hang), are the first to senesce (suh-ness), which means the vine is getting ready to shut down for the winter. Any “ripening” that happens after that is simply dehydration of the fruit on the vine—no longer actually flavor development. This time of year, I’m also looking for ripe flavors in the fruit, lack of the unripe bell-pepper flavor in Cabernet, and whether or not the pulp of the berry is easily detached from the seed. If the pulp is still adhering to the seeds, it’s likely that those seeds will add a negative bitter taste to the wine during fermentation.
Q: We had an early fall rain shower in October that brought a half-inch of rain to northern California. This late into harvest, is there any cause for concern with that kind of rain shower?
ZN: Rains during harvest are a huge concern for winemakers but are more significant for certain varieties than others. Grapes with thin skins are more prone to mold and mildew. This time of year, that would be Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Pinot Noir (if it is still hanging this late in the season). Cabernet Sauvignon is usually the last variety to be picked and, luckily, it is a thicker-skinned variety—more resistant to those issues and can weather a couple of rains.
Q: What kinds of things happen in the vineyard as soon as a crop of grapes is harvested? Do the vines go into a state of shock?
ZN: When a vineyard no longer has grapes to pour resources into, the vines will (ideally) start storing some of that photosynthetic energy into the vine’s wood. Some vineyard managers will follow harvest with fertilization through the drip lines to spur some root growth. Everything shifts from fruit development to storing energy for next year.
Q: What are the primary farming responsibilities from the end of harvest through to the spring of 2024?
ZN: After harvest, a little bit of nutrient addition like compost or fertilizer, then vineyard managers go to Hawaii. In January and February, when the vines are dormant, the team will go through and start a plan of pruning for the coming growing season.
Q: Give us some predictions! What can Cam fans expect regarding the style of wines from the 2023 vintage from Northern California? Talk to us about sparkling, white, and red — or whatever you are best suited to discuss!
ZN: Sparkling wine grapes had high acids, which made processing easier for that wine style. Mild weather meant we had ample time to pick white grapes at optimal ripeness for our desired wine styles. Most red grapes are coming in with ripe flavors and lower sugar levels, which means we may have a lower alcohol, yet perfectly ripe, red wine year. Kind of a rarity!