Inside the head of a Winemaker
- Posted on
- By George Balling
After completing my last column on Saturday September 26th, we received news of the Glass Fire erupting in the Napa Valley. The fire got going on Sunday the 27th. In astonishing developments, the fire burned to the ground the storied Meadowood resort in the heart of Napa Valley. At one point it had been reported that Rombauer Winery on the Silverado Trail in St. Helena had also burned. That later turned out to be not true, the winery survived largely intact. It turns out this was due to a heroic stand firefighters made on the “crush pad” at Failla Winery directly across the Silverado Trail from Rombauer. For regular customers of the shop you know Failla well, they craft some of the most delicious Chardonnay and Pinot Noir we are privileged to sell. Failla survived and we are relieved beyond words.
There were wineries damaged or destroyed in both Napa and Sonoma, and some located in the Mayacamas Mountains that split the two famous valleys. For someone who formerly lived there the pictures and stories are so sad and nothing short of breathtaking. Smoke inundated vineyards and damaged grapes seem to be everywhere, with none being spared even the most famous and notable are among the mix of ruined crops.
A colleague of ours was in Napa and Sonoma for a friend’s wedding from the 23rd through the 27th and to illustrate how rapidly things changed, he relayed that when he left on Sunday morning the 27th the skies were crystal blue and clear! It went that bad in just a few short hours.
Since Saturday the 26th, we have talked to some winemakers, corresponded with others, and gleaned information from emails sent out by friends around wine country. While the devastation is severe, at the end of the day the most daunting challenge for winemakers is making decisions on what to do with the 2020 grape crop. Business decisions need to be made, and at a time of emotionally consuming circumstances from COVID to fires, they need to be made while keeping those same emotions at bay. I can’t imagine.
After the devastating fires of 2017 that burned through the same area all winemakers learned the hard but valuable lesson that once grapes have smoke taint nothing can be done to remove it. The grapes and therefore any wine that would be made from them is ruined and can’t be repaired. This simple fact of chemistry has left most every winemaker certain that they will not attempt to produce wines from the tainted grapes. Sadly, this is nearly every red grape in the area. As we mentioned last week, each step in the winemaking process from harvesting grapes to sorting gapes to fermenting all add expenses. After 2017 all have decided given the preponderance of evidence that the crop is damaged beyond repair, to not harvest. A tough decision, no doubt.
Many winemakers now are trying to find fruit that is unaffected by all of the smoke. We learned from one winemaker who was on his way to check out a vineyard just over the border into Mendocino County from Sonoma County that there was what he described as a “doughnut hole” of vineyards that were free of smoke and fire. This is the thought process now, find undamaged fruit.
Other wineries and winemakers are looking to work their way through this crisis by releasing wines from their “library selections”. Recent vintages have been fairly robust for most. You have to go back to 2011 and 2014 to find vintages that were significantly smaller in yield than historical norms. With wine markets becoming more global and plenty of supply coming from all appellations many wineries have ample supply of older vintages to help fill the gaps in the 2020 vintage.
Others are looking for wine on the bulk market from previous years that they can then blend with their own wine they have still in the barrel from previous years, and any they can salvage from 2020 to make a multiple vintage blend. I would suspect that as we approach the normal time frame for release of 2020 red wines, we will see many of these non-vintage dated wines start to make their way into the supply chain.
There remains a chance albeit a small chance for some wineries to salvage some red grapes. We received an email update from a good friend in the Russian River Valley last week that the area right around the winery was remarkably still in good shape. They will be able to make some wine. The problem is that the grapes adjacent to the winery represent only 10% of their normal harvest.
Winemakers remain some of the most creative folks we know. As they work through all of this in their own minds no doubt, they will make the best of it. We continue to send good thoughts their way.
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