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The Paso Robles 2020 Vintage Begins

September 10, 2020

The Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) 2020 harvest began in earnest the last week of August. Albeit many brands were picking white varieties and/or reds for rosé or sparkling, sorting tables were buzzing and first ferments were kicking off. Is harvest early? Maybe by a week, but at this point most reports are saying that fruit is progressing nicely with acids up, forecasting a possible freshness in the finished wines of 2020.

Before everyone is in high gear, we thought we would get some first impressions from a few winemakers that have begun their 2020 march through harvest. We asked each brand to fill us in on the beginning of harvest, what 2020 has in store, and any harvest superstitions or traditions.

Jordan Fiorentini, Epoch Estate Wines; Aaron Jackson, Aaron Wines; Jeff Strekas, ONX Wines; Dan Smith, Villa San Juliette Vineyard & Winery; and Vic Roberts, Victor Hugo Winery provided their thoughts and some imagery from their first or upcoming picks.

Epoch Estate Wines, Jordan Fiorentini, Winemaker

We picked Viognier and a new block of Syrah for Rosé – both from Paderewski – last Thursday and Friday. The year in the vineyard was looking, dare I say – normalish – but now some crazy heatwaves followed by cool weather and more heat are making me reconsider this vintage’s personality. It is 2020, after all! Let’s all hope this vintage turns the year around for the better.

A harvest superstition? I have several, but most of them I’m not sure I want in print. I think my biggest superstition is having to taste the lot of grapes we picked constantly to make sure it’s good as it travels by on the sorting table. It’s like an involuntary reaction but if I don’t constantly have a grape in my mouth and chew on the skins and seeds, I feel unconnected to the pick.

Aaron Wines, Aaron Jackson, Owner/Winemaker

We had an unusually cool summer, which had me very excited for the 2020 vintage. However, the recent run of record-breaking heat spells has put the vines under an unfortunate amount of stress, which is going to make picking decisions critical. Overall, crop loads look rather generous, much like the past few vintages, and quality looks to be very high. I am extremely grateful that the fires ravaging the state are not impacting us the same way that they have impacted other wine regions in Monterey, Napa, Sonoma, and even the Sierra Foothills. All in all, I think Paso is on the very lucky side of 2020, which can’t be said for many other of the state’s top wine-growing regions. I expect quality for most all of our sites to be extremely high, as long as we don’t continue to have 110-degrees-Fahrenheit days! 

As for superstitions, we don’t have any per se, but I always like to fill the very last barrel of the year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It is sort of a winery protocol at this stage, and we have stuck to it for over five years. For some reason we always finish the day before Thanksgiving, so we always press the last fermenter, fill the last barrel, and tuck the last wine away for the year the day before. It gives us an extra reason to celebrate with our families on Thanksgiving (and an extra reason to drink more champagne with Turkey)!

Victor Hugo Winery, Vic Roberts, Owner/Winemaker

We haven’t started picking yet, but we’re getting close. I’m out in the vineyard checking each morning. We’re probably going to start our whites, Viognier and Chardonnay, in about two weeks. It will probably be at the very end of September for the earliest reds which are Zin and Syrah for us. The crop size appears to be on the smaller side of average, which is a good thing for the industry as a whole.

A tradition for us is that we normally pull out some library wines to enjoy with family and friends over Labor Day weekend to prepare for the next harvest. The 2020 vintage will be harvest number 42 for me, number 39 in Paso, and number 24 here at Victor Hugo.

ONX Wines, Jeff Strekas, Director of Operations and Winegrowing

2020 has been a crazy year so far! But as we all know, nature, like time and tide, waits for no man. So the grapes have continued to ripen no matter how distracted we all maybe with other events! The vintage compares favorably with 2017, including a cool, wet winter to give the vines a good rest and allowing them to wake up with lots of energy! The comparison even applies well to the generally moderate summer and late pre-harvest heat spike we just saw. The early returns are looking promising, with seeds looking ripe and lignified very early on. Now that most of our white and pink lots are in, it’s also apparent that grapes seem to be reaching flavor ripeness a touch earlier than usual, giving us the potential for delicious wines at slightly lower alcohols than normal as well. I think we’re all excited to see the results as we start picking our red wine grapes! 

It’s more tradition than superstition per se, but Drew and I have always played an all Queen playlist on the last day of fruit processing (personally I think it culminates with the Flash Gordan theme song…. Flash! Ahhhhahhhahhhh….savior…of…the Universe!).

Dan Smith, Villa San-Juliette Vineyard & Winery, Winemaker

The 2020 harvest is off to an interesting start in the Estrella District! Similar to the 2017 vintage, multiple heat spikes in August lasting into September accelerated the ripening process of our white and rosé varieties causing us to harvest earlier at slightly lower brix before acids dropped out. The fruit came in beautifully and will ferment to light and crisp styles of Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and rosé of Grenache. Our 10 red varieties are holding on strong with slight stress from the heat that will help develop bold and robust flavor profiles. We are hopeful that the heat will calm down and allow us some extra hang time for structure development before harvesting mid-September through October.

Besides the multiple bottles of Champagne we open to celebrate the first grapes of the season, it is a VSJ winemaking tradition to name each fermentation lot after a TV/Movie theme for the year. Given quarantine and 2020 chaos, a Netflix and Chilled theme seemed most appropriate. Top contenders for names this year range from Carole Baskin, to Eleven, to The Witcher. All is fair game.

...multiple bottles of champagne we open to celebrate...

The heat that some have noted has begun to taper off and fingers are crossed that this past heatwave will be the last. Warm temperatures are common this time of year, but more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit over multiple days creates a lot of uncertainty and challenging work conditions. Fall is just around the corner, and with luck harvest will continue with moderate conditions, allowing the fruit to ripen at an even measure, giving wineries the chance to bring fruit in at a more sensible pace. Happy Harvest!