A glut of wine against a soft market. A record-setting hot, dry year. A pandemic depleting sales by forcing restaurants across the nation to close and keeping tourists away. Lightning storms igniting an apocalyptic wave of wildfires up and down the West Coast. Winemakers and grape growers wondering what existential crisis might strike next.
“Zombies could walk out of our vineyards tomorrow, and nobody would be surprised. It’s 2020,” quips Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga, Calif., at the northern end of Napa Valley. And he’s one of the lucky ones, so far.
Western wildfires may seem a depressing annual routine. The real tragedy, of course, is the lives, livelihoods and homes lost. But there’s an economic impact as well, and where wine is concerned, this year is different from the past few. The fires that devastated parts of Sonoma and Napa counties in 2017 and 2019 occurred in October and November, California’s traditional fire season, after harvest was nearly finished. This year’s record-setting blazes started in August, just after veraison, the period when grapes turn color and begin to ripen. This is when they are most vulnerable to the West Coast vintner’s newest nemesis — smoke.
Wildfire smoke contains two chemical compounds that can taint grapes. Smoky flavors, often described as “camp fire” or “wet ashtray,” can emerge in the finished wine after weeks, months or even years. These chemicals can be measured in grapes and in fermented wine, but there is only one laboratory in California certified to do the tests. Wait times for results went from two days in late August to four or five weeks by mid-September. Some wineries, desperate to know the condition of grapes before harvest, have sent samples to labs in Canada or Australia. Otherwise, they have to rely on what is euphemistically called “strict sensory evaluation” — smell and taste.
Some perspective: The wildfires did not destroy the 2020 vintage in California, Oregon and Washington. Their effects are localized. The hardest hit areas appear to be parts of Monterey County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, eastern Napa County around Lake Berryessa, and southern Oregon. Oregon’s Willamette and Washington’s Columbia valleys experienced smoke, but vintners there and in Napa Valley proper appear to be more hopeful that their grapes escaped damage. “Fresh” smoke — ignited within 24 hours — is most dangerous. Smoke that has traveled some distance may make for dramatic photographs and still be hazardous for humans, but it’s less problematic for grapes. Red grapes are more vulnerable than whites, because the skins of the former are used in winemaking. This year, pinot noir was most at risk, as it was riper and closer to harvest when the fires hit than later-ripening varieties such as cabernet sauvignon.
As flames raced down the mountains from north to south in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County, driven by the strong winds of the Salinas Valley, Mark Pisoni helped firefighters bulldoze a fire break along the slopes where he and his brother, Jeff, had played as children. “The concern quickly shifts from saving the vintage to saving the actual vineyards,” Jeff Pisoni explains. Jeff, the family winemaker, said he would harvest some grapes and see how the wine turns out, but the uncertainty about the quality of the grapes led the family to decide not to sell any.
Others have decided to sit it out. Adam Lee announced he would not produce his Clarice pinot noirs this year. He uses grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands, including Pisoni Vineyard. He said he’d work with his growers to help cover their costs for farming the grapes.
“This was already a challenging year without the smoke,” Lee said. “We were in the middle of the second 110-degree heat spike, and the vines were shutting down and the grapes turning to raisins. Then the smoke. Winemakers can deal with these challenges individually, but when you put them together, it’s not worth it.”
Smith Story Wines, based in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, also will not produce wines this year. “The risk of making potential smoky wine far outweighs any reward,” Alison Smith Story, who co-owns the label with her husband, Eric Story, said on Facebook. “Our grower partners don’t want us to make bad wine and then it tie up our cash flow for healthy years ahead,” she told me in an email.
The quandary over whether to make wine at all under these conditions is especially acute for small wineries that don’t own vineyards or their own production facilities. These are often innovative, high-quality brands that operate on a shoestring budget, and many rely on restaurant and direct-to-consumer sales. They’ve already taken a heavy hit from the pandemic. If they accept grapes, they have to pay the grower. They then have to pay the custom crush facility where they rent space and equipment to make wine. That’s two financial payouts for wine that has the — admittedly unquantifiable — potential to be worthless.
Estate wineries, which grow their grapes and make wine in their own facilities, don’t have this financial pressure. That’s the position Petroski is in at Larkmead in Calistoga and for his own line of white wines, called Massican, which he makes there. Larkmead harvested its prime cabernet on Sept. 8 under a blanket of smoke from fires in Mendocino County to the northwest. Petroski made some adjustments, picking some grapes early to guard against more fires, and pressing the grapes gently to extract less matter that could be tainted. While waiting for lab results due in mid-October, he says his “sensory evaluation” so far indicates no smoke issues with the wines.
“We will know for sure by November whether Larkmead wines are tainted, but right now it looks like we are very fortunate,” he said.