By: George Balling
The 2020 Vintage was noteworthy worldwide for what happened in a very specific part of the wine world, the utter devastation wrought on Northern California from the early, ferocious and unrelenting wildfires that engulfed most all of Napa, Sonoma and surrounding counties. The fires that year started in August mostly from lightning strikes, and they never stopped shrouding vineyards in a heavy layer of smoke and ash. Making it even more ruinous was that it was late enough in the growing year that the grapes had already gone through verasion making them susceptible to the smoke, but early enough that the grapes were not yet ripe and couldn’t be harvested. It was a near wipeout for these most storied wine regions, and while other areas from the Northwest to Europe had good years, it is tough to talk about that vintage without recognizing the impact to the entire industry.
After all what makes Napa and Sonoma, Napa and Sonoma are a group of the most recognizable and sought after wines in the world. Most will not have a 2020 vintage. As we are now seeing the release of more of the 2020 wines from this part of the world, we are getting just a glimpse of how to navigate through the destruction.
No reputable winemaker will ever bottle wine made from grapes that are tainted with smoke. While we have heard of some who are attempting to market the smokiness as a positive, it is not. Smoke taint can’t be removed from the grapes once it is present and the taste no matter what anyone tells you is simply put, bad. That leaves all of us as wine consumers with the task of finding the wines from vineyards that did not get “smoked”. There are some out there.
The fires in 2020 started on Glass Mountain outside of St. Helena, in the Stags Leap District and parts of Rutherford. They spread from there affecting much of the Napa Valley. It took them some time to move east to Sonoma burning through the canyons of the Mayacamas Mountain Range. This fire pattern while devastating to so many regions and wineries, it also created the opportunity for some good if not great wines to be crafted. It is one of the conundrums of that year, were it not for the fires the growing season was pretty great.
In our recent tasting with DuMol we tasted three wines from their 2020 vintage, a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and their Syrah all from the Sonoma Coast appellation. We also recently received some new releases from Failla Winery including 2020 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. In the case of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the varietals are early ripening. The combination of being far enough west in Sonoma County, and grapes that are harvested earlier and higher altitude vineyards created the perfect combination to keep these grapes smoke free. You know what? All of these wines we have tasted are fabulous! It’s an opportunity to enjoy some 2020 Northern California wines, especially for those who love Burgundian varietals.
We just received the release of the 2020 reds from Pride Mountain Vineyards. Pride sits high in the Mayacamas Mountains right on the County Line between Napa and Sonoma Counties. When our distributor told us he had the Pride wines from 2020 we were skeptical, but we also know the team at Pride very well and there is no way they would bottle wines that are smoke tainted. Their reputation is sterling and their approach meticulous they just wouldn’t do it. When the wines arrived, I brought a bottle of the Estate Cabernet home to check it. It is delicious! Our sense is that the altitude of the Pride estate sits above the smoke allowing the grapes to stay clean and smoke free. Another navigational hint can be taken from this, if you are looking for great Napa Cabernet, Merlot and the like a good area to focus on is the Spring Mountain district where Pride sits, others were likely as fortunate.
Many of our Napa and Sonoma favorites are still in the midst of their 2018 and 2019 wines, with their 2020s if they made them, still a couple of years out. As we have the opportunity to taste the wines that are available, we will report on them right here. We will also without hesitation name names of any winery or producer that attempts to sell smoke tainted wines as a good thing. While we prefer not to single out those who have a bad vintage or a bad wine, smoke taint is a different thing. It just should not be done, and we will bend our rule in that case.
Stop by the shop for more bright spots from this otherwise dark year.