Wildfires have been a part of the wine country lifestyle since the profession took hold in Northern California over a century ago. In 1964 the Hanley Fire—sparked by the butt of a hunter’s cigarette—burned over 80,000 acres in St. Helena. The Fork Fire burned another 80,000-plus acres of Lake County in 1996. One of the state’s most devastating flare ups came in 2017, when the Tubbs Fire of Santa Rosa took the lives of 22 people, destroyed 5,636 structures, and burned 36,000 acres. In 2020, many of the wildfires that spanned across Northern California were classified within a group known as the LNU Lightning Complex Fires, a series of small-but-effective fires sparked by lightning strikes throughout the region. These sporadic, random strikes came in late August, an unseasonably early beginning to what has become known as “fire season” amongst wine country locals. But through it all, California’s winemakers remain resilient as ever, striving to produce a vintage on par with any other.
Here, Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Wines in Healdsburg, discusses the impact of 2020's fire season, how smoke can often cause more damage than flames, and why he’s optimistic about the future of wine country.
CP: From a winemaking perspective, what’s the biggest challenge this year’s fire season presented you?
CM: It’s funny, I think it’s a common misconception that the fires are what effect winemakers, when in reality it’s the smoke. Of course one life lost or one structure lost is one too many, but for the wineries in this area, the real issue this year was the smoke. Grape skins are absorptive, it’s something you don’t really think about, but when that smoke settles into a vineyard the skins can absorb certain compounds from the air, it’s what we call “smoke taint.” And as winemakers, once those compounds are absorbed into the fruit, there’s really nothing we can do to draw them out.
CP: So this year, the winemaking community’s contending with smoke, not fire?
CM: I think the important thing for people to realize is that Sonoma County as a whole was not affected. The Walbridge fire was really centered in Dry Creek Valley and Northern Russian River Valley, so there was a huge part of the county that really wasn’t in the smokepath. And the other thing we find very interesting is that smoke taint affects varietals very differently. For instance, we found that zinfandel—probably because of the nature of its large berries—has a much higher juice-to-skin ratio. So, when you have those smoke compounds absorbed by the skin, there’s so much more juice-to-skin that it essentially dilutes the effects. You need to reach certain thresholds to taste it, something like nine parts per billion, so if you have a threshold of three or four parts per billion, you literally cannot taste it.
CP: It really is amazing. You look outside today and it’s this lush, green paradise again.
CM: You know, I was sitting outside with some folks about two days ago doing an outdoor tasting, and I was trying to point out to them where the fire had been on the hillside, not a mile away. And they’re looking up at the hills like, “I don’t even see anything.” And I’m like, “Exactly!” It’s just so amazing how resilient this place is, you already see things coming back to life.
CP: What excites you as we (hopefully) leave all the fire and pandemic behind us in 2021?
CM: As tasting rooms have started to open back up and we get to host guests again, it’s that connection that we have with our customers. It’s so wonderful to see people here again enjoying the bounties of Sonoma County. Enjoying our restaurants, enjoying our tasting rooms, our wines. And as we get later into the year and return to something like “normal,” I think people are going to want to get out. It’s been a really challenging 12 months, and I think people have this pent up energy to get out and explore. To enjoy the finer things in life. For us that’s what it’s all about: socialization. Bringing people together over food and wine, that’s the epitome of socialization, and it’s what we do best here in wine country.