Spurred on by a full-blown "Indian summer" heatwave in mid- to late-September, the California winegrape harvest of 2000 kicked into a frenzy of picking and crushing up and down the state.

Though the harvest wrapped up earlier than in recent years, and the crop was "above-average" in terms of tonnage; winemakers let out a collective gasp as remnants of several tropical storms brushed the coastline and then pushed back out to sea in early September. Two winter-like storms threatened briefly, one in September and another in early October, lowering temperatures but dropping little rain.

Overall, California winemakers crushed an estimated 3.2 million tons of grapes, grown and nurtured in what many describe as one of the most even and temperate growing seasons in recent memory. Winemakers are also cheering the exceptional quality of the wines in preliminary tank samples.

An average winter rainfall, combined with a dry spring, provided ideal conditions for the initial flowering and fruit set of the grapes. A blistering, three-day heatwave on the North Coast in early June was cause for concern, but the heat dissipated as quickly as it had arrived. During the month of July, the grapes began to flourish and turn color, and by the third week in August, many winemakers began picking their first grapes of the season, earlier than in recent years. By Labor Day, all of California was full-throttle into harvest.

With a record harvest -- about 600,000 tons ahead of last year's record, due mainly to new vineyard plantings throughout California -- grape prices began to level off in some regions. The demand for grapes in the cooler coastal regions of the state remains robust, and the recent escalation of prices for premium grapes, particularly for red grapes in the Sonoma and Napa appellations, continues to be a concern for a winery's bottom line.

Fueled by dot-com fever and a surge in consumer demand for super-premium wines, vintners are commanding record prices for their wines, particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. However, at the end of the 2000 harvest, there appears to be an overabundance of high-quality wine on the bulk-market, mainly from the Central Coast and Central Valley of California. It is unlikely that this glut of lower-priced, Central Valley grapes will have any effect on wine production in Sonoma and Napa Valley, though some California wine producers were, for the first time in several years, beginning to see relief.

Here are a few comments from the winemakers, vineyard managers and general managers of Allied Domecq Wines, USA:

SONOMA COUNTY

Clos du Bois, the flagship winery of Allied Domecq Wines, USA, continued its strong growth in the super-premium wine category. Spurred by the success of Clos du Bois Sonoma County Chardonnay, the winery launched in earnest its Appellation Reserve Series with a sharply focused group of Alexander Valley Reserve wines that include Merlot, Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. These wines represent the best grapes from the best growers in the Alexander Valley, including the winery's own vineyards.

"The harvest in the Alexander Valley was up about 5% in terms of tonnage over what we would consider a normal year," says Pete Opatz, Clos du Bois Director of Vineyard Operations. Opatz is responsible for fanning grapes on the winery's 800 acres of prime Alexander Valley vineyards and believes the quality of the fruit was outstanding this year. "I don't recall a time when the crop size and crop quality on all varieties were this much in sync, though Pinot Noir was slightly down in crop size," he added.

Clos du Bois remains one of the largest purchasers of Sonoma County grapes and is expanding into other appellations on the North Coast. The winery crushed more than 22,000 tons of 13 different grape varieties from about 550 vineyard blocks, grown in 360 different vineyards, spread throughout 14 appellations. The grapes are sourced from nearly 200 growers, and more than 1,000 vineyard workers were required to pick the grapes during the Clos du Bois harvest of 2000.

"We were very lucky with the weather," says veteran Clos du Bois Winemaker Margaret Davenport. "In early October, the cool, rain-free days allowed the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to mature to their full, ripe potential. The red wines from the 2000 vintage may be some of the most exciting wines I've ever tasted."

NAPA VALLEY

The incredible prices garnered by many wineries at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction, including $500,000 for one 6-liter bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, has had a major effect on the entire valley. The idea that Napa Valley has become America's best known wine region has not been lost on Allied Domecq's two successful Napa producers, Atlas Peak Vineyards and William Hill Winery.

As many grape growers will tell you, there is only one Napa Valley, and with that notion comes a rarified pricing atmosphere. In 1999, William Hill Winery released an $80 per bottle Cabernet Sauvignon named "Aura." The wine sold out in a week, and as one wine critic remarked, "by the standards of Napa Valley, Aura should be considered a bargain."

Also this past year, William Hill Winery signed a long-term lease on 80 acres of prime Cameros Napa Valley vineyards. The move solidifies its base of cool-climate Chardonnay and opens up the possibility of a Pinot Noir somewhere down the road.

The 2000 harvest received high marks from the staff at William Hill Winery. "The color and flavors of the wines this year are exceptional and will most certainly add to the complexity of our Napa Valley wines," said Glenn Salva, General Manager for Atlas Peak Vineyards and William Hill Winery. "The warm, dry weather during the bloom and fruit set last May went a long way in creating consistent, flavorful bunches of grapes."

Atlas Peak Vineyards crushed more than 700 tons of grapes, while a record 2,200 tons were crushed at nearby William Hill Winery.

CALIFORNIA'S CENTRAL & SOUTH COAST

The big news in 2000 for Allied Domecq Wines, USA, was the transformation of its Callaway Winery into a "Coastal" winery. Increasing grape sourcing from the Central Coast of California has been a major leap for both the vineyard and winemaking teams.

An expenditure of nearly $2 million for grapes from the Central Coast has had a significant effect on the taste profile of Callaway Coastal wines. "The high-quality harvest of grapes from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties has increased the complexity and style of our wines and given Callaway a new and exciting dimension," says Dwayne Helmuth, a winemaker at Callaway Coastal Winery.

The teamwork of Helmuth and new winemaker Darren Procsal has been important in maintaining visual inspection and tasting of grapes as they were crushed in several locations along the Central Coast of California and at the home winery in Southern California.

Callaway Coastal Winery crushed nearly 6,000 tons of grapes, with more than half of that coming from grapes custom-crushed at several facilities in Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties.

Both Procsal and Helmuth are particularly excited about an emerging Central Coast Syrah program. "Beginning with 1999, and including this year's vintage, we have two successive years of top-notch Syrah from the Paso Robles region that is surely destined to become part of our Callaway Coastal 'Classic' wine portfolio," says Procsal.

In addition to Syrah, Callaway Coastal Winery purchased enough Chardonnay from the famed Bien Nacido Vineyards (near Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County) this year to add to its 2,500 case Coastal Reserve Chardonnay.

"Our move to acquire grapes from the Central Coast of California has opened up an entirely new set of winemaking possibilities," says new General Manager John Falcone (formerly winemaker at Atlas Peak Vineyards in Napa Valley). "Initial response to the new Callaway Coastal wines has been extremely enthusiastic among wine consumers around the country. We're building a Coastal program that fits the requirements of everyday wine lovers who are looking for crisp, fresh, affordable, high-quality wines."