“If you didn’t make great wine this year, you probably shouldn’t be in the business.” A bold statement from Chateau Montelena winemaker Matthew Crafton summarizing the 2023 Napa Valley vintage. “There are so many different ways to express this vintage,” he attests in this year’s Napa Valley vintage report, now available on SOMM TV.
The annual report, watchable to subscribers and non-members for free, sees Crafton reminiscing the ebbs and flows of the 2023 vintage alongside winemakers from across the valley, including Renée Ary from Duckhorn Vineyards. “We had a lot of water, which changed the dynamic for the season. It pushed everything back, delaying bud break and a long, cool flowering period. It kind of set the tone,” Ary explains.
From a cool, wet spring to a condensed harvest season that saw some unexpected days off, the 2023 vintage was full of triumphs and challenges.
Early Onset Questions
The unusual spring weather was pivotal in shaping the season’s narrative — particularly testing winemakers’ patience. Following a late bud break, there was hope for really warm days to speed up veraison and catch up to the valley’s typical harvest timing. But those days never came.
“We didn’t have really hot days. So we were like, ‘this will take a while’,” says Shaina Harding, winemaker at Gaderian, explaining how she knew harvest would be later than usual. “I was talking with other winemakers trying to predict what was going to happen; [at that point] we knew we were going to be waiting.”
For a Napa winemaker conditioned to start picking in late August or early September, the delay provoked some concern. “There was some nervousness,” says Macario Montoya, winemaker at Roots Run Deep Winery. He continues, “There were questions like ‘Are my grapes going to ripen? When’s that heat spike coming?'”
Even for early ripening varieties like Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, the waiting game was tedious. “Typically, it’s early to mid-August, but we didn’t start until the 28th this year,” explains Ary. “Then there was a long delay before it was time for other varieties.”
“My vineyard manager went on vacation in September. That’s probably the first and last time that’ll happen,” says Harding, referencing the increased hang time to allow later-ripening grapes to be ready.
The irregular timing led to an unexpected harvest, in some ways with less typical pressure. According to Ary, “It was nice to have that break in the cellar. Typically, heat is pushing you to bring stuff in the door. But we let things hang to get the full time out there [on the vine].”
Challenges of the 2023 Napa Valley Vintage
The beauty of winemaking lies in its unpredictable nature. The 2023 vintage faced its share of challenges, much of which transpired because of the shortened picking window.
“In years past, it’s spread out. Fruit comes in starting in September and runs through October. But this year, everything was condensed into a month,” says Montoya. “We’re trying to keep the cellar workers motivated because it’s a grind.”
The shortened timing played into some unexpected choices for Crafton at Montelena. “Because of the logistical challenges, I made some decisions I might not have made before July. I wouldn’t have two separate picks or even co-ferment two different varieties. The virtue from this situation was based purely on need originally. But occasionally, you get a few [results] that are excellent.”
Forced experimentation can be the silver lining for winemakers, particularly having only one chance each year. “When Mother Nature forces our hand, and it comes out beautiful, it’s that much more exciting,” explains Harding, who’s also juggling a surprising jump in inventory as a result of the vintage. “I’ve got more wine in the cellar than I anticipated. I wouldn’t say I’m scrambling, but I need more barrels and new French oak. I’m piecing together more supplies and trying to fit them in to look nice and elegant.”
Though challenging, the puzzle of this year’s harvest was also the motivation. “If I had a pick for every block, I’d be so bored,” says Ary. “I love playing the chess game and moving things around.” Harding agrees, “The color-coated dry erase board in my office is my favorite part.”
2023 in Three Words
Encapsulating this year’s vintage into a few select words is challenging. However, from Calistoga in the Napa Valley’s northeast to the southernmost Carneros, one thing binds all 16 AVAs across 30 miles (48 km) in 2023: rain.
“In the past few vintages, rain didn’t enter the equation during harvest,” says Montoya. “This [year] was the first time we had rainstorms in September and October. They were not huge storms, but they still entered your mind,” leading him to only one word to describe the year, “patience,” in waiting for the grapes to ripen and choosing the right time to pick.
At Chateau Montelena, Crafton says you can expect his 2023s to be “supple, diverse, and delicious.” He expands, “There are so many different ways to express this vintage. What an amazing opportunity to put your creative stamp on the wines; that doesn’t happen every year.”
For Ary at Duckhorn, it’s about “hang time, elegance, and freshness. There’s a purity and freshness that’s coming out in all the wines that I like.”
And finally, “It was big, beautiful, and balanced,” says Harding of Gaderian, “the three B’s of 2023.”