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Associated Press
Assistant winemaker Nathalie Jure Buckland looks at ripening taking place on Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at Opus One winery in Oakville, Calif.

California heat wave has wineries smiling

– There’s no such thing as “normal” weather in California wine country, and vineyard operators say this year, that truism could mean good news for wine lovers.

After low temperatures slowed ripening and kept grapes on the vine until fall in recent years, growers in the nation’s premier wine region are facing a heat wave that has made for one of the earliest harvests in recent memory.

“It has been a challenging year,” said Michael Silacci, winemaker at Opus One in Napa Valley. “But it’s shaping up to be an excellent year.”

Weather hasn’t been this warm across the region since 1997, a year that produced a highly regarded vintage. If the heat continues as expected, it could mean fruit-intensive wines from an early and abundant crop.

“We’re a full month ahead of 2009, ’10 and ’11,” said Jon Ruel, COO at Trefenthen Vineyards and president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

Dealing with changing weather patterns is part of the art of growing wine grapes, a long dance with the elements to achieve a precise combination of sugar levels and acidity expected from one of California’s top commodities, a crop worth $3.2 billion on the vine last year, which created more than $34 billion worth of wine.

To bring in that harvest, growers are accustomed to being flexible.

“There’s no such thing as a normal year,” Ruel said. “And this isn’t a normal year.”

Growers can drop clusters to improve flavors and quicken ripening in cool years. And they constantly monitor forecasts to know when an early shot of water will help get vines through a heat wave.

For this vintage, vineyard operators started picking grapes used to make sparkling wines in July, a move that came toward the end of August last year. And they’re watching cabernet, merlot and pinot noir grapes, which are already turning red and starting to ripen.

“Everything is moving at a faster pace,” said Silacci, of Opus One, the cellar founded in 1979 as one of the first for ultra-premium wine in the U.S. Weather changes are a major factor that makes vintages distinctive.

“We want every vintage of wine we make to give you a sense of time and place,” Silacci said. “We’re not making Budweiser, where a customer wants it to taste the same as the last can.”

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