Wines flow de­spite smoke’s toll on vine­yards

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - NEWS - By Es­ther Mob­ley

Cal­i­for­nia’s 2020 wild­fire sea­son will be re­mem­bered not only for its de­struc­tion of winer­ies, homes and vine­yards but also for an­other last­ing im­pact: the un­prece­dented num­ber of Cal­i­for­nia winer­ies that have de­cided, due to wild­fire smoke, to make far less wine than usual — or, in some cases, to make no wine at all.

Just how much Cal­i­for­nia wine will go un­made in 2020 is im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify right now, as many farm­ers and wine­mak­ers are still as­sess­ing the im­pact of wild­fire smoke, which can im­bue wines with un­pleas­antly smoky fla­vors and aro­mas, a still sci­en­tif­i­cally murky phe­nom­e­non known as smoke taint.

But early anec­do­tal re­ports from in­di­vid­ual vint­ners paint a dra­matic pic­ture. Philippe Melka, con­sult­ing wine­maker for about 25 high­end Cal­i­for­nia wine brands, most in Napa ValMany

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ley, said that he har­vested just 35% 38% of the red grapes he’d planned to. He de­ter­mined that wild­fire smoke had com­pro­mised the bal­ance of the crop. Napa and Sonoma winer­ies, in­clud­ing Spoto, Neal, Gar­den Creek, Trom­betta, O’Shaugh­nessy, Somer­ston, Reeve and Lam­born, have in­di­cated they might make lit­tle or no wine.

Other es­ti­mates sug­gest the over­all dam­age to grapes could be lower, though still sig­nif­i­cant. At­las Vine­yard Man­age­ment, which man­ages 3,500 acres of vines, has seen 60% 65% of its grapes har­vested, said CEO Barry Belli. Linda Reiff, pres­i­dent of Napa Val­ley Vint­ners, a trade as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing 550 winer­ies, said 80% of her or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mem­bers will make some amount of wine.

Still, re­gard­less of any in­di­vid­ual win­ery’s fate, it’s im­pos­si­ble for the in­dus­try to read 2020 as any­thing but a wakeup call. Many wine­mak­ers are de­ter­mined to learn from this cat­a­strophic year rather than de­spair over lost in­ven­tory. The threat of fires and smoke to Cal­i­for­nia’s wine in­dus­try seems to be here to stay.

“This is the fifth year in a row that a Cal­i­for­nia wine re­gion has been af­fected by the fires, so it’s not an is­sue that we can just dis­miss,” said Priyanka French, wine­maker at Napa’s Sig­norello Es­tate, which is in the process of re­build­ing af­ter burn­ing in the 2017 Wine Coun­try fires. “This is part of the re­al­ity of mak­ing wine in Cal­i­for­nia now.”

Napa Val­ley saw the bulk of the dam­age this year in the Glass Fire, which erupted in late Septem­ber, sub­se­quently dam­ag­ing or de­stroy­ing 27 win­ery or vine­yard prop­er­ties. “I’m not sure the scale over­all in Napa,” Melka said of the im­pact of smoke taint, “but what I can tell you is that in our port­fo­lio, some of the winer­ies are not go­ing to pro­duce any 2020 ( red wine), and that’s a first for me.”

But the is­sue isn’t con­fined to Napa and Sonoma, ac­cord­ing to Jeff Bit­ter, pres­i­dent of Al­lied Grape­grow­ers, a co­op­er­a­tive of 450 grow­ers through­out the state. With fires af­fect­ing wine re­gions through­out the state this year, there are con­cerns about the qual­ity of grapes in re­gions as dis­parate as Lake County, the Santa Cruz Moun­tains and Mon­terey County’s Santa Lu­cia High­lands.

Statewide, around 3.3 mil­lion tons of wine grapes will be har­vested this year, a yearoverye­ar de­crease of about 15%, Bit­ter es­ti­mated. But, he cau­tioned, that num­ber doesn’t tell the full story: Be­cause the full in­ten­sity of smoke taint is not al­ways ap­par­ent early on, some un­known per­cent­age of those har­vested grapes will later be deemed un­fit for a bot­tled wine.

That’s not to say no wines will be made. There are vicini­ties and grape va­ri­eties that ap­pear to have es­caped the worst. Grow­ers in Men­do­cino County’s An­der­son Val­ley, for ex­am­ple, are re­port­ing min­i­mal smoke taint. Even in ar­eas that burned, some wine grapes were har­vested be­fore the fires be­gan, and those are con­sid­ered safe. And most white wine va­ri­etals, which come off the vine ear­lier than reds, are out of harm’s way.

But prob­lems with the 2020 vin­tage be­gan long be­fore the Glass Fire. Some wine­mak­ers had al­ready given up on this year’s vin­tage based on the light­ning siege that ig­nited wide­spread fires in midAu­gust.

Most of the de­ci­sions at Amici Cel­lars in Cal­is­toga, for in­stance, came af­ter Au­gust’s LNU Light­ning Com­plex, said John Har­ris, a pro­ducer of sin­glevine­yard Caber­net Sau­vi­gnons from some of Napa’s most fa­mous sites, in­clud­ing Mis­souri Hop­per and Oakville Ranch. As any­one who lives in the Bay Area knows first­hand the air qual­ity in late Au­gust and early Septem­ber was poor — due not only to the light­ningsparke­d fires, which burned near some of Amici’s vine­yards, but also to the com­pounded ef­fects of wild­fires through­out the West Coast.

Af­ter those Au­gust fires, Har­ris tried to get his grapes tested for smoke taint. With lo­cal lab­o­ra­to­ries back­logged for more than a month, he sent sam­ples to Aus­tralia, Canada and New York, ul­ti­mately spend­ing $ 50,000 in lab fees, he said. By the time the Glass Fire ig­nited, about 6 miles from his win­ery, he no longer needed to see any num­bers. He knew in­tu­itively that the wines would be ru­ined, so de­cided he would not re­lease any red wines from this vin­tage.

Oth­ers, like Sosie Wines own­ers Scott MacFiggen and Regina Bus­ta­mante, were op­ti­mistic go­ing into Septem­ber. Early test re­sults at some of their vine­yards af­ter the Au­gust fires “showed some smoke taint but not an enor­mous amount,” MacFiggen said. It was a sit­u­a­tion they could live with, and they planned to start pick­ing Syrah, Rous­sanne and red Bordeaux va­ri­eties from vine­yards around Sonoma Val­ley.

But when the Glass Fire “started dump­ing black smoke,” MacFiggen said, those plans changed. Sosie will pro­duce no wine at all in 2020.

The Glass Fire, in Bit­ter’s words, was “a nail in the cof­fin” for many Napa and Sonoma vint­ners. In a hand­ful of cases, wines were de­stroyed by the fire it­self: At Spring Moun­tain winer­ies Cain and New­ton, for ex­am­ple, their justvini­fied bar­rels of 2020 wine went up in flames along with their win­ery build­ings.

But for the rest of the re­gion, the threat of de­struc­tion was more in­sid­i­ous, de­mand­ing some tough cal­cu­la­tions. Could a win­ery af­ford grape pur­chases and pro­duc­tion ex­penses on a wine that might be un­sellable? The dearth of sci­en­tific knowl­edge about smoke taint only com­pli­cated mat­ters: Some smoke com­pounds might not re­veal them­selves in lab­o­ra­tory tests, and there may be some amount of smoke taint that can ex­ist peace­fully within a wine, but no one re­ally knows what that thresh­old is.

“There has been a lot of gray area,” said Shalini Sekhar, wine­maker for bou­tique Pinot Noir brands in­clud­ing Neely and Wait­sMast. “There will be some wines that have smoke in­flu­ence but not taint.

Th­ese re­ally low num­bers — can some­one taste that? It’s very un­clear to me.”

Or, as Peter Mol­nar, owner of Ob­sid­ian Ridge Win­ery, put it: “We’re all ba­si­cally in a self­driv­ing clown car. No­body has their hand on the wheel, and no­body knows where we’re go­ing.”

Mol­nar un­der­stands the dan­ger of smoke taint bet­ter than many. Four of the past 12 vin­tages at his Lake County vine­yard have been com­pro­mised by smoke taint. In two of those years, the win­ery re­leased the wines any­way. That was the right de­ci­sion in 2015, Mol­nar said, when the smoke in­flu­ence was barely per­cep­ti­ble, but prob­a­bly the wrong de­ci­sion in the smok­ier 2008 vin­tage. In both 2018 and 2020, his team de­cided not to make any wine from their es­tate vine­yard.

Those nu­anced de­ci­sions sug­gest that there may be a place in the mar­ket for some smoke­touched wines. “If you’re talk­ing about $ 8 bot­tles, you can prob­a­bly make it work,” Mol­nar said. At the low end, it can prob­a­bly be di­luted away: A lit­tle bit of smoke taint will be im­per­cep­ti­ble when blended into a large vol­ume of clean wine. But for pricier, sin­glevine­yard bot­tlings that de­pend on a rep­u­ta­tion for pris­tine qual­ity, for­get it.

“Lis­ten, not mak­ing a vin­tage is sad. But filling your win­ery full of bad wine would be tragic,” Mol­nar said. “The first is a coun­try song. The sec­ond is an opera by Wag­ner.”

At its worst, smoke­tainted wine “tastes like some­one dropped a cig­a­rette into it,” said French of Sig­norello. But many ex­am­ples she’s tasted over the years have been much more sub­tle. “Some just have an oily tex­ture to them, a very heavy, vis­cous feel­ing that lingers on the back palate.” In low con­cen­tra­tions, it may sim­ply make the wine taste muted — less fruity, less aro­matic, less ex­pres­sive. Many wine­mak­ers went ahead and picked grapes that may have been tainted, hop­ing for the best, and will de­ter­mine later whether the wine is suit­able for re­lease. ( If it isn’t up to snuff, the winer­ies can sell it on a sec­ondary mar­ket where it will be made ei­ther into in­dus­trial ethanol, brandy or vine­gar.) Mit­i­ga­tion tech­niques ex­ist, like re­verse os­mo­sis, flash de­tente and char­coal fil­ter­ing, though their ef­fi­cacy is not en­tirely clear. Since smoke com­pounds nest pri­mar­ily in the grape skins, wine­mak­ers may be able to di­min­ish the im­pact by re­duc­ing the amount of time that wines mac­er­ate with the skins; the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of this is rosé, made from red grapes that get al­most no skin con­tact.

“My strat­egy just be­came to get the grapes off the vine quicker,” said Sekhar. Even if she thought the grapes needed a lit­tle more hang time to reach op­ti­mal ripeness, she wanted to min­i­mize their time ex­posed to smoke out­doors. At the Neely vine­yard in the Santa Cruz Moun­tains, “we had a day that was over 400 on the AQI,” she said, air qual­ity as suf­fo­cat­ing for grapes as it is for hu­mans.

Sekhar is con­fi­dent that many of the Pinot Noirs she’s made this year will be de­li­cious, even from places where fires burned nearby. “Con­sumers may view the vin­tage in a way that I think is un­fair,” she said. “There’s been so much vari­a­tion ( in smoke dam­age) within re­gions.” Not ev­ery­thing is lost, she said, and “I’m only go­ing to put out wines that I’m proud of.”

At Sig­norello, French de­cided to turn 2020 into one big sci­ence ex­per­i­ment. “We har­vested all our es­tate wines, but we’re 100% pre­pared for it to be a learn­ing year,” she said. She’s care­fully mon­i­tor­ing the wines, col­lect­ing data at ev­ery step of the way and com­par­ing it with pre­vi­ous vin­tages. If some wines turn out de­li­cious enough to re­lease with the Sig­norello la­bel, that would be a bonus, but she isn’t count­ing on it. The pri­mary goal is re­search — some­thing that win­ery owner Ray Sig­norello is will­ing to in­vest in, French said. But not ev­ery small win­ery can af­ford those hefty R& D ex­penses.

“The big­gest ques­tion mark is: How do th­ese wines evolve as they get older?” French said.

Mol­nar, of Ob­sid­ian Ridge, is de­ter­mined to use 2020 as a cat­a­lyst for change. He wants the in­dus­try to fund larg­er­scale re­search and to con­vince more farm­ers to sign up for crop in­surance. Mean­while, he’s re­con­sid­er­ing his busi­ness model. If his vine­yard is go­ing to be af­fected by smoke taint ev­ery four years, on av­er­age, he should make 25% more wine in the good years, he said.

In other words, he re­fuses to dis­miss 2020, un­prece­dented as it may be, as an anom­aly. “We live in a fire ecosys­tem,” he said. “We have planted vine­yards in­side of that fire ecosys­tem. We can’t let it put ev­ery­one out of busi­ness.”

Es­ther Mob­ley is The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle’s wine critic. Email: emob­ley@ sfchron­i­cle. com Twit­ter: @ Es­ther_ mob­ley

San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

A Cal Fire truck drives along St. He­lena High­way, pass­ing vine­yards to­ward the Glass Fire ear­lier this month. Smoke taint will take a toll on some re­gional wines.

Rachel Bu­jal­ski / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Priyanka French, wine­maker at Napa’s Sig­norello Es­tate, picked all of her grapes de­spite con­cerns about smoke taint.

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