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A view from the vineyards on climate change

  • Story Highlights
  • Chardonnay grapes may be ready for nighttime picking September 1
  • Far Niente sends 30,000 to 40,000 cases of wine to market yearly
  • Climate issues a concern, but wine makers take into account normal flux
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By Porter Anderson
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OAKVILLE, California (CNN) -- Anticipation is in the sunshine flooding these vineyards' meticulously tended rows nowadays. At Napa Valley's Far Niente wine estate, that not-quite-knowable date is coming.


When Far Niente's new harvest of chardonnay is picked soon, the operation will be done in the cool of the night.

"The grapes are ready on their time schedule," says Dirk Hampson, director of wine making, "when Mother Nature says they're best to pick. And that's completely dependent on: When do they taste right?"

September 1. That's the guess. Human, not Mother Nature's. She's not talking.

It's when observers say the chardonnay grapes will be ready to pick. Labor Day weekend relaxation could be overtaken by the moment of truth for these grapes, which cluster and cling to lines scoring the land in all directions from Far Niente's island-in-the-vineyards lawn. Photo See a gallery of images from Far Niente's 13-acre campus in Napa Valley »

Could the date be affected someday by climate change, a contentious issue debated just about everywhere wine is consumed?

"Obviously, it's a subject we think about a whole lot," says Hampson, sitting in a shady spot at a surefire-postcard edition of the traditional Italian vintner's table and chairs. Video Watch a tour of Far Niente's historic facility in Napa Valley with Dirk Hampson »

"Anybody who's a serious farmer knows the soil, the conservation, the climate are imperative. Even more so with a product like this that goes around the world, is reviewed. We are doing a whole lot of things that we think relate to this and are trying to understand" the implications of warming trends "like everybody else."

The name Far Niente ("far nee-EN-tay") translates roughly from the Italian to mean "to do nothing," to be "without a care." Add the romance of "dolce" to the sentiment -- wine growers like to add romance -- and you get one of the company's favorite iterations: "How sweet to do nothing." Watch an audio slide show with Far Niente's Mary Grace about the early winery »

But don't believe them. When Mother Nature gives the nod, these folks will be doing anything but nothing.

Hampson says the great stainless-steel vats in the lower levels of the winery may stand quietly gleaming, dry and empty, most of the time. But suddenly, those towering vessels become the delicately calibrated hub of a big bang of activity at harvest.

It's hard to believe that this bucolic, genteel operation is putting between 30,000 and 40,000 cases of wine on the market annually. Two-thirds of that are chardonnay, one-third is cabernet.

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"And we used to do the picking at in the middle of the day," Hampson says, his eye parsing the conditions of vines as he walks. "Now we pick at night under lights to keep the grapes cool."

This may have something to do with higher alcohol content, Hampson says, as does waiting for a level of ripeness that wasn't the case in the past.

Hampson stops walking to make his point: "More ripeness, more sugar, more alcohol," he says. "Nothing to do with climate change."

At at time when it's easy to juggle concern and buzz-phrases into any conversation, Hampson counsels caution, observation -- the wary wait.

"What's happening with global warming, and what does it mean to the great vineyards of Napa Valley?" he sets up his topic and jumps in, fueled by his training as an enologist, a specialist in viticulture, or the growing of grapes and making of wine.

"Most of what I hear is that in the next 10, 20, 30 years, maybe, the temperature may go up about a degree. Now, from six miles south of us in Napa to five miles north of us in St. Helena, the difference in temperature can be five degrees.

"So a degree? That's well within the normal range of variation we experience."

What's more, an account of the creation of the 2004 Far Niente Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon notes that temperatures in the summer of 2004 running five to 10 degrees cooler than the norm. A bottle of the 2004 Cab is selling on the winery's site at this point for $120.

From the nearby Martin Stelling Vineyard that produces the core of the cabernet grapes, you may hear the clink of glass jangling the lower-level interior of Far Niente's sturdy, restored 1885 stone winery. That's the 2006 chardonnay being bottled.

Otherwise, these 13 acres of grounds echo with not much other than the splash of fountains and the whine of bees that Central Casting might have sent to complete the ambiance of one of California's most picturesque and honored wine houses.

Fact Box

Far Niente Wine Estate

  • Current Releases:
    2005 Estate Bottled Chardonnay
    2004 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 'Cave Collection':
    Chardonnay 2003, 2002, 2001
    Cabernet Sauvignon 1993, and 1995 through 2002

  • Tours and tastings
    By appointment, $50, Monday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., (705) 944-2861

  • If the long view of temperature flux seems to console and reassure wine people these days, much is still at risk. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house that John Benson built in 1885 clearly is precious to partner-owners Hampson, Larry Maguire and Beth, Erik and Jeremy Nickel, of the associated Nickel & Nickel estate and label.

    "Does the temperature question address the larger issues of, say, does spring come sooner?" Hampson asks. "Could it change our harvest? Could it change our style? We take these questions very seriously, and at the same time, we're aware of how easy it is to assume that too much can be called 'climate change.'

    "We've taking our wineries to complete solar power," he says, meaning the Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel single-vineyard wines. "If we're not that serious about doing it, why would we think everybody else would be serious? We have to be that part of the response to the plight of the farmer and to the needs of making great wine."

    In a way, one of Hampson's personal projects could be among the most vulnerable if genuinely dramatic and pervasive shifts in air, soil, moisture, temperature eventually affected the valley.

    "In '85," the centennial of Far Niente's inception, "I wanted to have some fun making something different from Far Niente chardonnay and cabernet, and I settled on making a late-harvest wine."

    Called Dolce, this is a dessert wine handled in a special sector of Far Niente's underground caves complex, aged in 58 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as three years in French-oak barrels before it's blended into a highly limited release.

    One edition of Dolce, in 1999, was made from grapes picked on December 6, St. Nicholas' Day, an extremely late harvest date. It produced just four barrels of Dolce, now sold at $500 per bottle, a part of the proceeds going to the Make a Wish Foundation: St. Nicholas is a patron saint of children.

    Proud of an 1886 bottle from the early winery that bears a label thought to have been designed by artist Winslow Homer (a nephew of founder John Benson), Hampson today holds 10 percent of every vintage of Far Niente for a "cave collection" that can be eked out at rising prices over the course of a decade.

    And in the limestone-lined subterranean wine library he carved out of the hill to guard a small cache of each Far Niente offering for posterity, Hampson, 50, is in touch with his inspiration.

    He designed the octagonal sanctuary after seeing Florence's famed Baptistery and understands the importance of the drama such a space can confer on an art-as-trade -- an art supported by the unromantic grind of filtering wine and chilling chardonnay vats to coax out potassium.

    "See the sculpture?" He points to the limestone carving of a friar cradling a barrel. "The artist we used on this took a marble sculpture in Rome as his inspiration, but then made it his own. This was a chance to bring craftsmanship as well as construction to this room."


    In the fields, soon to be pervaded by the grape scent of "crush," Hampson and his team will be walking the rows, tasting for Mother Nature's signal. And watching for any signs that the cool of that promising evening could be influenced by environmental shifts.

    "We take a lot of pride in what and how we do each part of wine making," Dirk Hampson says. "And the lifestyle that goes along with it." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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