Napa Valley sparkling wine producer, Mumm Cuvee Napa, inaugurated the first harvest of the new millennium last week when it brought in 140 tons of grapes -- including the new Dijon clones of Pinot Noir from Yountville -- that were pressed at the Rutherford-based winery.

Traditionally, after the winery picks grapes from vineyards in Yountville, pickers move to mid-Napa Valley before moving southwest to Carneros to finish harvesting. Because of a recent heat spell, Pinot Noir grapes in Carneros are ripening in speed with mid-valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

"We are picking grapes fast and furious due to excellent August ripening weather. The grapes have received a good length of time on the vines and the overall ripeness and flavor of the juice we are pressing is outstanding," said Mumm Cuvee Napa director of winemaking Rob McNeill.

Mumm harvests Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier grapes, using its famous "Friendly Yellow Boxes" or FYBs, from over 50 vineyards in Napa Valley, including 150 estate acres.

With nearly four more weeks for Mumm to complete picking grapes, McNeill reports Pinot Noir and Chardonnay yields similar to the 1999 harvest.

Greg Fowler, senior vice president of winemaking for Seagram Chateau and Estate Wines Company -- the parent company for Mumm, Sterling Vineyards and Sterling Vintner's Collection and The Monterey Vineyard -- concurred.

Because of a fairly mild winter and a normal budbreak, Fowler said early predictions for northern California vineyards in general were for a larger harvest, unlike the preceding two vintages. This was modified to a more normal crop due to variable weather in May during the later stage of bloom, coupled with a heat spike in June, which resulted in poor flowering.

"Overall July was unbelievably cool and the rest of the weather has been fantastic in terms of getting a nice even ripening. We are extremely excited about the potential of this harvest which is somewhat reminiscent of the 1997 growing season," said Fowler.

Fowler said he predicts that this year will result in a record number of tons for Chardonnay in Napa Valley because the vines, which were replanted due to phylloxera, are just coming into full production. "But on a per acre basis, or on a purely vine basis, we will have a more normal crop of Chardonnay," he said.

Sterling Vineyards, known for its Napa Valley Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignons, will begin harvesting next week, which is about one week behind the 1997 growing season and up to 12 days ahead of last year.

"Our Merlot from Three Palms Vineyard benefitted from a great fruit set and Cabernet is exhibiting very even and ripe color development, but overall throughout the valley it's Cabernet that is king once again," continued Fowler.

As for the rest of the state, including the Central Coast and specifically Paris Valley Ranch which is dedicated for Sterling Vintner's Collection, the set was good for Cabernet and Merlot.

Fowler explained that a cooler season in the Central Coast produced smaller clusters and berries which he said is "leading us to bigger intensity of flavor -- and that is what were looking for all across the board in all of our wines," said Fowler.

The Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines Company, a division of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., produces and markets the wines of Sterling Vineyards, Sterling Vintner's Collection, Tessera, The Monterey Vineyard and the sparkling wines of Mumm Cuvee Napa. The company is the exclusive U.S. importer of G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouet Champagnes, San Telmo from Argentina, Barton & Guestier wines, Brancott Vineyards from New Zealand and Sandeman ports and sherries; and is the largest importer of classified Bordeaux in the United States. The portfolio is completed by Dominus in the Napa Valley, a collection of Burgundy estate-bottled wines, F.E. Trimbach wines from Alsace, Castello d'Albola in Chianti, and several other European wines and spirits. For more information, visit www.aboutwines.com. or to view a streaming video of harvest at Mumm Cuvee Napa, visit www.mummcuveenapa.com.