31 Oct Truth in Wine Napa and Sonoma Fire – Harvest 2017
My phone rang at 5 a.m. on October 9. I thought it was our vineyard manager in North Napa telling us our grapes had been picked and were en route to our winery in Berkeley, about 60 miles to the south.
“You’ve got them in already?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “We can’t pick. There’s a fire blocking the roads. We can’t get anyone to the vineyard.”
That fire, as we all know now, was really one of a group of fires that devastated much of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, lighting up the night skies with crimson flames and covering the wine country in a blanket of smoke for a week. Close to 50 people were killed, many more are missing, and some 6,000 homes and other structures burned. Some twenty-five wineries sustained damage ranging from severe to mild as well. It was a nightmare for anyone living in the region. (Even the nearby cities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco were covered in smoke for much of the fire’s duration.) Those who lost their homes will continue to suffer as they put their lives back together. And many in the wine industry will need to spend time and money cleaning up peripheral damage caused by flames, heat and high winds.
Jeff visits a smoke-filled vineyard in Sonoma
That’s the bad news. But there’s “less bad news,” too. As I drove through Napa and Sonoma Valleys after the fires had (mostly) died down, I could see that a lot of vineyards remained untouched or—at least to the eye—intact. The flames didn’t burn through the vines nearly as easily as they did through the dry forests and tinder on the forest floor. Vineyards appeared to be less susceptible to damage than the large swaths of residential areas that burned too. As we watched the fire map change daily, I could see where vineyards I know intimately were located. And I assumed they were lost. But they weren’t. Indeed, most vineyards remain intact.
And there’s even better news. Much of the harvest had been completed by the time the fire broke out. At Covenant, we had brought in 95% of our grapes. However, some of the region’s late-ripening grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, were still hanging on the vines on October 9. In areas farther from the flames and accessible to picking crews, these grapes were picked and delivered with just a few days’ delay. They will make fine wine, I am sure.
But other vineyards didn’t fare so well. Some growers were unable to access their vines—despite the fact that the vines were untouched—until the fires were tamed a week later or more. Some grapes appeared to be in good shape, while others did not. The question of smoke taint—which can emerge in wines made from grapes growing close to a fire—remains a wild card. It’s unclear exactly how or why some grapes are tainted, and some are not. Most winemakers with concerns about smoke taint will have a laboratory test the juice or wine for those compounds that cause the problem. Smoke taint can be fixed—or at least ameliorated—through various high-tech solutions such as flash détente or some kind of filtration. Those companies that offer these services will probably be in high demand.
So what should consumers be concerned about at this time regarding the Napa/Sonoma fires of 2017? Truth be told, not much. Most wines affected by the fires will not be released for more than a year—maybe two years. Those wineries concerned about smoke taint will have ample time to test their wines prior to bottling.
At present, there is plenty of excellent wine from Napa and Sonoma in the marketplace to drink. The smoke in the valleys is now gone, and most of the wine routes are sunny and clear. On the surface, much of the wine country appears unaffected. That said, let’s not ignore the suffering of those who lost homes and/or wineries and vineyards. This is a tragedy that will take years to rectify. And those who lived through 10-plus days of evacuations, threatening flames and smoke won’t forget this experience anytime soon. But for wine aficionados and wine travelers, it’s time to get back to the Napa and Sonoma wine country for a visit. Feast your eyes on the glorious scenery and sample the great wines produced in these regions. The vintners have weathered the storm, and they are back in business!
Eli Silins at Covenant Winery processing the last Cabernet grapes of the harvest