Over the last few days, California’s wine country has been decimated by raging wildfires. With over 100,000 acres burned and thousands of structures destroyed or at risk, the property damages will require years to recover, and with deaths already in the double digits, the human damages are incalculable. Numerous vineyards are also in the direct path of the inferno, raising serious questions about the fate of future vintages.
The State of the Vineyards
Right now, it is virtually impossible to fully assess the impact of the blazes. Evacuations, closed roads, and destroyed infrastructure means that information is slow to arrive, even to the winemakers themselves. What is known is that the effects are going to be severe.
Signorello Estate in Napa, Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa, Frey in Redwood Valley, Vin Roc in Atlas Peak, and White Rock Vineyards in Soda Canyon are all completely destroyed according to Esther Mobley at SFGate. Other properties were partially damaged by the flames.
The other big question is the status of this year’s harvest. Extra days on the vine affect sweetness, texture, acidity, and can even ruin the entire vintage. Pick too early and the grapes will be tart; pick too late and they will be too sugary.
Violet Grgich, a VP at Grgich Hills Estate said that their vineyard is working hard to catch up. Fortunately, Grgich’s power is restored and the vines were spared. “The air quality is still very smoky. The most critical immediate activity is harvest and production, and most of the cellar crew has been able to arrive to pick and crush our final grapes and take care of pump overs and fermentations,” Grgich told Neat Pour. “We are continuing with our day-to-day activities as best we can.”
Most vineyards in the region were lucky enough to harvest before the fires according to Santa Rosa winemaker Matt Flick. Indeed, Neat Pour verified that a sampling of Napa vineyards including Sinskey, Long Meadow Ranch, Robert Foley, and Elyse as well as Sonoma’s Inman, Gunlach Bunchu, BR Cohen, and Robert Foley all have completed their harvests. A late summer heat wave was among the factors sparking an early pick. In the case of Pinot Noir, the harvest was a particularly short window. At the time, a scramble for trucks and manpower in the fields during a small opening caused some chaos, but in retrospect, it may have saved the vintage.
It’s not all rosy though. Flick noted that harvest times vary from varietal to varietal and some bigger wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel “like to hang on the vines longer.” Consequently, many of these grapes are at risk. Some large producers like Jackson Family Wine are facing dire scenarios. “Today, we have suspended all farming and harvest activities in the north coast while we focus on our people,” stated CEO and President Rick Tigner. “The main office is working with limited staffing and electrical power to meet basic operational needs.”
Yes, “smoke taint” is a real term and it’s exactly what you think it is. Flick, a Board Member for the Sonoma Wine Technical Group, explained that smoke taint can occur when smoke and ash particles land on grapevines. “It’s easy to imagine the ash on the grapes, but it’s also possible for the plant to absorb these chemicals through the leaves which are eventually carried through the vascular system into the grapes themselves.”
The result are unwelcome additions to the grape’s flavor profile. Most significantly 4-methylguaiacol. (Food science types call it 4-MGu for short). “It smells like smoke or embers, a fire pit—smoked bacon if you’re kind,” elaborated Flick. “Barrels impart a small amount of these same compounds – they’re charred wood, after all – but the concentration in smoke tainted wines is so high it becomes overwhelming”
The good news is that the majority of the harvest is safely fermenting far from the reaches of smoke. The grapes at risk may get a second chance from a creative winemaker. “In previous vintages with fires; winemakers had varying levels of success in mitigating “smoke taint” (4-EP and 4-EG) in the finished wine,” commented Flick citing a UC-Davis white paper.
After the crush comes the fermentation. Most wineries are running this process with skeleton crews as most of the roads are impassable. Images of Siduri Wines’ team fermenting in a dark room made the round on social media. Flick said that the obstacles are not fatal. “Ferments are generally being managed as before. It will just take longer with fewer people.”
The 2017 vintage
So, what does this mean for your average wine lover? There will be no great drought, but the 2017 vintage will be small.
Neat Pour spoke to several vineyards and they each emphasized that they will meet production goals. “At the moment, we’re committed to fulfilling our orders with our wholesalers and our wine club members,” stressed Grgich
However, a wet winter and that heat wave already diminished this year’s yield. Plus, those vineyards that were hit hard by the fire will have little to no output. The 2017’s will be available, but they certainly won’t be floor stacked in a pyramid.
Leora Pearl of Pearl Wine Company said that she expects a sticker increase on the higher priced, collector wines. Yet, she is more concerned with the effect of a mid sized crunch on smaller producers. “Now, I’m worried about the long run and the big guys who need to make up for product volume and satisfy shareholders. I’m concerned that they will eat up fruit that the little guys normally purchase,” mused Pearl. “Will that drive up costs and put some of the little guys out? Only time will tell.”
The Bottom Line
Every winemaker interviewed for this story offered the same comment, “We can always make more wine, we can’t make more people.” Even in the unharmed vineyards, many staffers suffered personal losses. “Many of the people on our team were evacuated, and we fear that some may have lost their homes, explained Joe Anderson, co-founder, Benovia Winery. “As of right now, Benovia Winery and our vineyards are safe. Along with my wife, Mary, we are praying for our friends and neighbors.”
Pearl said that she intends to double her California wine in bulk and donate 100 percent of the profits to rebuilding. The Napa Valley Community Foundation has already set up a Disaster Relief Fund. You can donate here.
And, of course, the fires are still raging and first-responders are still in harm’s way. They will remain the region’s top concern until the infernos are extinguished.