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XOJET’s Guide to the 2016 Napa Valley Harvest

On any given day, we fly as many as 60 flights a day around the country, on the nation’s largest floating fleet of Challenger 300 and Citation X. But at this time of year, one destination starts popping up conspicuously: Napa County Airport, the closest one to the Napa Valley wine region. It’s the harvest and there’s nothing like being in the heart of wine country while it’s in full swing.

To that end, we interviewed the people on the ground, winemakers and winery owners at top Napa properties, to get a firsthand report on the 2016 vintage and to get their advice on where you should stay and dine if you decide to make a visit—the places where they relax during the harvest and where they send their friends.

As for the vintage, the answers were surprisingly uniform: balance, structure, classic flavor, all created by a growing season that was remarkably uniform (no weather ambushes). And as Kristof Anderson, the winemaker at Gargiulo Vineyards said, “finally a vintage not based on drought,” as there was good rainfall in the winter.
That left the perennial challenge: logistics. All of the winemakers cited the need to line up the picking crews in advance, yet having to pull the trigger on the harvest on relatively short notice.

“Thank God for cell phones,” said Doug Shafer, head of Shafer Vineyards, who recalled the days of tearing around the Valley in his pick-up trying to meet up with a crew foreman in order to book him. “Tech has allowed me to get more sleep.”

Gargiulo Vineyards: Jeff Gargiulo (owner) and Kristof Anderson (winemaker)

Gargiulo Vineyards Harvest Season Winemaker
Photo credit: Sue Negrini

Located in Oakville and a producer of three Cabernets and several unique varietals: 575 OVX Cabernet Sauvignon (100% Cabernet, 350 cases), 575 OVX G Major 7 Study Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux blend, 900 cases, named for a classic jazz chord), Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (100% Cabernet, 900 cases), Aprile Super Oakville (96% Sangiovese, 4% Cabernet 900 cases). The 575 OVX 100% Cabernet is Gargiulo’s top wine, from one of the only vineyards in Napa Valley that borders the cult Cabernet property Screaming Eagle.


“A winemaker’s dream,” says Kristof, referring to the lack of heat spikes and lack of rain. “There was not much weather to complain about resulting in wines that are not overly extracted.”


“An amazing bookend,” he continues regarding the 2016, alluding to the 2012, ’13, ’14, and ’15 vintages, which were characterized by drought. “It reminds me of 2012 because of the lack of weather extremes.” Kristof recalls the rain in 2010 and 2011 (“three inches on the day of the Napa Valley wine auction in June and rain during harvest”). “It was about canopy management. We did extreme things in the vineyard to ripen the fruit.”

Gargiulo Vineyards Napa Valley Harvest Season Wine Bottles
Photo credit: Sue Negrini


“To have patience and not get caught up in the rhythm of harvest,” says Jeff, citing a theme that came up again and again. “The crews are lined up, the barrels are lined up, but you have to know when to refrain from saying ‘go’.” But once you do, that’s it. “At 2 am in the vineyard, there’s no time to call a meeting,” says Kristof. After that, it’s micro-management: going over 20 different blocks in 10 acres three to four times.


Bistro Don Giovanni for casual dining, and La Toque for high end,” says Jeff. “I put my friends up at Auberge and Poetry Inn.” Kristof likes the Oxbow Market in Napa (next to the new Copia) for Hog Island oysters.

Hourglass Vineyards: Tony Biagi (winemaker)

Hourglass Vineyards: Tony Biagi (winemaker) - Napa Valley Harvest Season
Photo credit: Kent Hanson

Hourglass has two vineyards, Hourglass (Cabernet) and Blueline (Bordeaux blend). Both are in Calistoga, the former named for its shape and the latter named for the two streams that mark its borders. The winery was founded in 1976 by Ned Smith, who had a keen eye for vineyard land as a result of having sold it for many years. He zeroed in on Hourglass for it’s location, a nip in the waist of Napa Valley that causes a bottleneck of cool air flowing up-Valley. That’s a vineyard boon, as it tempers summer heat.


Biagi defines it in one word: “Patience.” Because of the cool summer, “I’m walking the vineyard a lot,” he says, citing what he thinks are the two major characteristics of 2016: “Hang-time without a lot of sugar, and a lot of flavor development.”


“The run of vintages, 2012, ’13, ’14, has been phenomenal. 2016 looks like it’s in the middle. You couldn’t ask for a better set-up for the harvest.”


Being patient. “Dan Duckhorn once told me, ‘if you look hard enough, you’ll find something to pick.’ They’re chomping at the bit in the cellar, but you can’t exert your will on the vintage.”


Sitting on the pool deck at Meadowood after having lunch and catching an hour’s sleep. “It’s my guilty pleasure. You got to get away from the harvest sometimes.” His other go-to: “Beer and a pizza on the patio at Redd Wood in Yountville—Richard Reddington makes the best pizza in Napa Valley. And don’t forget Model Bakery for the English muffin.” (In Napa town and St. Helena.) But he advises visitors “to get up-Valley to Meadowood’s restaurant, Solage, and Calistoga Ranch.”

Rombauer Vineyards: Koerner Rombauer III (owner)

Rombauer Vineyards: Koerner (KR) Rombauer III (owner and winemaker) - Napa Valley Harvest Season

Rombauer produces the full varietal portfolio, from Sauvignon Blanc through Zinfandel and from vineyards that span the Valley from Calistoga (Bennett Lane) to Carneros (Buchli Station). Koerner (known as KR) arrived in the Valley in 1972, when his parents, Koerner and Joan, decided to embark on winemaking. But the fix was already in: KR’s great aunt Irma wrote The Joy of Cooking.


“It’s shaking up to be a very high quality vintage, but some varietals will be down in quantity because of the weather during flowering,” says KR, referring to the cool and rainy weather in early spring. “Mother Nature is our ultimate boss.”


“It’s on par with the others. 2012, ’13, ’14, and ’15 were very good to us and 2016 looks like high quality.”

Rombauer Vineyards - Napa Valley Harvest Season
Photo credit: Richie Allen


“Trying to handicap a 10-day weather forecast. Five-to-eight degrees of temperature drop can slow down picking.” Translation: When do I book the crew? “It’s your best educated guess.”


KR has a drone perspective, given that his properties span the length of Napa Valley (25 miles). His picks: Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa, Rutherford Grill in Rutherford, Bottega in Yountville, the Bistro at Auberge du Soleil (“sit on the deck and enjoy the view”), Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena (“mix of locals and tourists”), and Calistoga Inn and Brewery in Calistoga. He sends his friends to PRESS steakhouse in St. Helena, Mustards Grill in Napa, and Solbar at Solage Resort in Calistoga.

Crocker & Starr: Pam Starr (co-owner and winemaker)

Crocker & Starr: Pam Starr (co-owner and winemaker) - Napa Valley Harvest Season
Photo credit: Joe Hendricks

Located in the heart of Napa Valley (Dowdell Lane in St. Helena) and the restoration of the Crocker Vineyard Estate, Crocker & Starr grew out of a grape purchase discussion while Pam was winemaker at Spottswoode. Pam makes Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and a Bordeaux blend.


“The summer was not too hot,” says Pam. “In five words, it’s about early, abundant, generous, tradition, and community.” Like the other winemakers, Pam says it’s a nice bookend to the past five years.


“2012 was textbook. 2013 has such long hand time that you could have gone golfing and come back in three days. 2014 was a smaller crop, but super high quality and structure. 2015 was easy-peasy, a no-rush vintage and one of the earliest finishes ever. I actually got to celebrate Halloween.”


“Getting the grapes in is pretty easy. It’s the logistics. Getting the bins back. What if the scale breaks?”


Pam is big on Napa town. “The Bank at the Westin makes a beautiful botanical gin martini and I can bring our dog, Griffin.” She loves the Poetry Inn (“I can have everything delivered there”) and the Napa River Inn (“get the new rooms facing the Napa River”). A secondary advantage: you can drink and walk home. She also recommends Torc “for pork and mushrooms like nobody’s business.”

Shafer Vineyards: Doug Shafer (owner and former winemaker)

Shafer Vineyards: Doug Shafer (owner and former winemaker) - Napa Valley Harvest Season

This Stags Leap property is renowned for its Cabernet and Merlot—the Cabernet Hillside Select is a reference-point wine. “One can argue that no wine produced in the world over that twenty-plus-year period of time [1994-2014] has scored as consistently highly as the Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon,” wrote Robert Parker in a December 2014 review of the vintages from 1983 to 2013. Another neat ‘did you know?’ is that Vineyard founder John Shafer was a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II (Europe), and his squadron commander was Jimmy Stewart.


“It’s looking to be a beautiful year.” And then, he adds, “This will be one of the years that I forget because nothing out-of-the-ordinary happened. That means longer hang-time, better ripening.”


“2010 was cool and challenging. 2011 was as tough as it’s ever been, cold and wet. 2012, ’13, and ’14 were good years, and ’15 was characterized by drought, but good quality grapes.”

Shafer Vineyards - Napa Valley Harvest Season


“Picking on the right day. Once you pick ’em, you can’t put ’em back.” Between 5:30 am and 1 pm, “it’s crazy,” says Doug. “All the decisions have to be made because of the logistics. You can’t tell guys to move equipment at 4 pm.”


“I’m not a very exciting guy. I head home.” (But his go-to otherwise is Mustards Grill.) He sends friends to Auberge du Soleil, Meadowood, and Ad Hoc in Yountville, “some of the best food in the Valley.”

Vice Versa: Patrice Breton (owner and winemaker)

Founded in 2003, Vice Versa is obsessive about Cabernet Sauvignon, supervising and sourcing grapes from some of Napa Valley’s best vineyards. Patrice is a “terroiriste,” seeking to seduce the Cabernet to yield a wine most expressive of where it was grown. He is the only winemaker I’ve ever heard use the word “draconian” to characterize his vineyard practices.
“Optimal conditions. We had some beautiful rain finally, early and cool weather that extended ripening. A great, great vintage.”


“2011 was the most horrible vintage in history—hail, cold, rains, and rot. Which is why I did not release my wine. (But I kept two cases for the library.)”
2012: “Extraordinarily even maturity, beautiful structure, and balance.”
2013: “Best vintage in recorded history for Cabernet. Long-lived, largest Robert Parker scores ever.”
2014: “Hottest vintage in history of Napa Valley. Cooked flavors and too much alcohol.”
2015: “Hotter vintage with a smaller yield (40% fewer grapes). That means lots of depth and lots of structure.”


When to pick. “I pick on the earlier side because I’m seeking balance.”


Calistoga Ranch and the pool at Solage to relax. Restaurants: Cress, Terra, and The Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil. “They have the finesse.”

By Gary Walther

Gary Walther has been a travel journalist for 40 years. He has been editor-in-chief of Departures, Expedia Travels, Luxury SpaFinder, and Forbes Life magazines, and for the past five years a freelancer with a column on called The Hotel Detective. He has passport stamps from 61 countries and is a million-miler on American Airlines. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Departures Europe among other publications.