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Wildfires Take a Deep Toll on California Wine Country

When wildfires tore through California wine country in 2017, vintners were told it was a 'once in a hundred year' event. Now, it's happening again.

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This week, 2020 officially became the first year in recorded history during which more than four million acres were consumed by wildfires in California. According to NPR, “Cal Fire says the state has seen more than 8,200 fires this year, with 31 fatalities and more than 8,454 structures destroyed. Nearly 17,000 firefighters are still working to contain at least 23 major fires in the state.”

And while the threat of more fires remains real—October and November tend to be exceptionally active wildfire months—many wine producers have already been affected, and in ways that they haven’t been in the past.

“This year has been pretty brutal,” lamented Sandy Taylor Carlson, President of Taylor Family Vineyards in Napa. “It’s just been one [issue] compounded on top of the next on top of the next. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.” Taylor Carlson, though based in Stags Leap District, produces a range of standout reds with both estate-grown fruit and grapes purchased from top growers throughout the region. But because of the timing of the fires this year, and the smoke taint that impacted even the vines that remained untouched by the flames, she and her team decided not to harvest fruit from a number of vineyard sources.

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Samples from a handful of them have been sent to laboratories for analysis, but, she told me, “Unfortunately, our labs are backlogged—it is taking 30-plus days to get results. Currently, we only have lab results for the initial fire event,” the Hennessey Ridge fire, which began on August 17th. “Without additional data from the lab, we rely on our senses,” she added. “Napa Valley Vintners [the regional trade association] suggested that we have three independent/professional palates analyze the fermented juice from our micro fermentations. So that is what we have been doing while we wait for our lab results.” But even that is of limited use in a year as violent as 2020: “We no sooner submit micro-fermented samples to the lab, [that] another smoke event erupts. Aside from a couple tons of…fruit that we probably will not be able to use, we have not harvested grapes for our red wines this year. In terms of cases produced, we are only making 32% of our planned production. Not having any 2020 red wines will have a dramatic impact on our future sales.”

Fortunately, Taylor Family Vineyards was able to make sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and rosé of cabernet this year, but the loss of 68% of their production will have an impact that will be felt for years to come.

Jamie Kutch, who produces critically lauded pinot noir and chardonnay from a range of top sites along the Sonoma Coast, is facing similar losses. “When the smoke clears, we will have produced just one red wine from the 2020 vintage: McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir. The remaining four red wines we would usually produce sadly all succumbed to smoke taint,” he explained. “We discovered the fruit in our other vineyards was compromised by both laboratory samples and by fermenting micro ferments in five-gallon buckets and then using sensory [analysis] to smell and taste for smoke taint. It’s been devastating in an already challenging year.”

The diminished volume of wine has an inevitable impact on the people responsible for it at all points of production, from the vineyard to the winery. For Kutch, that means that the once-unthinkable may come to pass. “I have just one employee, and I already discussed with her how I was unsure if I could or would keep her on,” he told me. “With so little wine to make and so little wine to raise in barrel, we will lose money in 2022 when this vintage would usually come to market. My growers have insurance, so while they won’t see much income from the harvest, they won’t lose money either, as their policies pay them out a percentage of the value for the damaged fruit.” But for Kutch, substantially less wine to sell means vastly diminished profits.

Despite the popular image of California wine country as being full of wine brands backed by substantial enough money to ride out multiple tragic years like 2020, the truth is that most producers are far smaller. More than a couple of years in a row of losses like this, and the future suddenly becomes frighteningly murky for many of them.

“We can survive the loss of 2020,” Taylor Carlson told me. But if she loses 2021’s reds as well? “We would have to cut off our wine club…and certainly not do any tastings in order to make it beyond another year like this. I don’t see any other way around it. You would have to do something.” She added, “We have a very limited inventory.” And while Taylor Family Vineyards produced more reds in 2018 and 2019 following the losses from 2017’s wildfires, “If we don’t have a vintage in 2021, I think we and probably wineries with models similar to ours are going to be trying to figure out how you move forward with the kind of losses that we’ve had this year. Obviously we’re okay with our white and our rosé, but is that enough to carry a winery that really focuses on reds? Probably not.”

Producers with a different business model have been able to pivot with more freedom. Valerie Von Burg, Co-Owner of The Wine Foundry in Napa, noted that, “As for our wine production for 2020, we have had to stay nimble as the situation has progressed. Our core business model is crafting small-lot custom wines for private individuals and small commercial brands, offering a full-service program from fruit acquisition, to production, to packaging, in increments of a barrel (25 cases). We source from over 20 vineyards in California for this program, mostly in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino, but also extending to Clarksburg and other regions for specialized varietals. We source from the same vineyards for our own two brand collections, Anarchist Wine Co. and Foundry Wines.” As a result of the range of vineyard sources that they work with, Von Burg added, “We have flexibility to shift our clients and our own brands to fruit from vineyards that haven’t been damaged by fires, smoke taint, or other issues. So we have been closely monitoring the situation and making changes as necessary.”

Christi Coors Ficeli, Owner and Vintner of Goosecross Cellars in Yountville, said that, “Like everyone in the Valley, we are meticulously monitoring all of our fruit through laboratory analysis. While there is smoke taint in some grapes, others are unaffected. We may have less fruit overall, but we will still have an excellent vintage,” at least among the wines that are made.

Kisha Itkin, President and Co-Owner of Theorem Vineyards on Diamond Mountain in Calistoga, sees a similarity between this year and 2011. “It is not an apples to apples comparison, but the 2020 vintage may end up being similar to the 2011 vintage. In 2011, late rains affected the growing season. Grapes that were harvested before the rains turned into world-class wines, while those that were affected by rain were not of the quality people expect from Napa Valley wines. The 2020 vintage may have a similar outcome.” Fortunately for the team at Theorem, Itkin pointed out, they had already harvested their fruit before the grapes could have been affected by the fires.

For producers who didn’t get their fruit in before the fires and smoke began impacting the grapes, they will have to rely on what they were able to produce to both maintain their reputation and provide whatever profit they can. Luckily for Jamie Kutch, “We produced two white wines from the vintage, both of which tested and tasted clean. While it is difficult to judge the quality at this early stage, everything is in balance in terms of fruit, acidity, alcohol, and concentration. It’s my early belief that our whites will be delicious, as many usually find them to be.”

Sandy Taylor Carlson explained that, in general for this vintage, “I think it makes sense to look at whites, rosés, and sparkling wines differently than reds produced in 2020. We are confident that our sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and rosé of cabernet were harvested prior to smoke damage.” She added that those wines have been “Excellent. They are fruit driven, with expressive aromatics and beautiful flavors.”

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Still, she went on, “The 2020 growing season has been without precedent—we are in uncharted territory. We have been growing grapes in the Stags Leap District since 1980, and we have never seen fire or smoke events compounded one after another like we have seen this year. After the 2017 fire, we heard from firefighters that it was a ‘hundred year fire.’ The fires of 2020, so soon after the 2017 fires, are alarming to us as residents and vintners. I would be remiss to believe that fires of this magnitude will not happen again. However, I remain optimistic about the future as wine producers. I do not believe it will be easy or without challenges. Given the fires of 2017 and now the fires of 2020, we are making strategic changes as growers and as vintners. We will get through this together—we are a collaborative and resilient bunch. We are not sure exactly what that will look like, but we have to evolve. And that means change. Change is not always easy, but it is necessary.”


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