The Long-Term Fire Effects Start to Show
By: George Balling
Many parts of Wine Country across the Western US have endured fire nearly every year recently. 2017 and 2020 though have been by far the worst for the iconic Napa and Sonoma Valleys and surrounding areas of Northern California. It is in no way to minimize what other areas up and down the West have gone through but in many ways these two counties represent a bell weather for what to expect from other affected areas.
Just this past week we are beginning to see price and supply trends that reveal the long-term effects of the most devastating fires. We received a slug of release and allocation numbers on some of the highest of the high-end Napa Valley Cabernets from the 2017 vintage in the last several days. The numbers are not just down on the size of the allocations they are way down. In 2017 the fires started in mid-October and while much was harvested by then including most all white grapes and the early ripening red varietals, the later ripening red varietals like Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot were still “hanging”. When the fires lit off a scramble ensued to get as much of the remaining fruit picked as possible and much was saved before smoke taint set in.
Even with these Herculean efforts though the damage and lost fruit was still significant, which we are now seeing in the lower numbers of the “big reds” from 2017. What is more interesting is that even with these reduced bottle counts being available we are not seeing big price increases, in fact for allocations this past week prices were the same as last year. This is significant as most of these ultra-high-end producers use what we jokingly call the French pricing model. Anecdotally it goes something like this, “It has been a tough year and grape yields are down and we don’t have as much wine so we must raise prices. It has been a very good year and the wines are fabulous so we must raise prices.” You get the idea.
We speculate pricing trends this year are related to a couple of factors. First, the fires do create a bit of a public relations problem for wineries, especially these highly allocated ones. The news of the fires that burned through grape growing regions was and still is everywhere. Buyers might be a bit reluctant to write the check at increased amounts from fire vintages, therefore a little price stability is warranted. Secondly, while we still endure Covid related shutdowns in many urban areas, the restaurant market for these wines is challenging.
Many of the wines priced at these levels of $500 per bottle and up also have active after markets with collectors trading bottles years after their release. When a year turns out to be better than expected the best bottles will appreciate even more. We predict this may happen with the 2017s. Producers at this level are never going to release a smoke tainted wine, they have too much at stake, our speculation is that these 2017 bottlings will be spectacular as prior to the fires it was a near perfect growing year, and will likely appreciate over time.
Contrast the 2017 growing year with 2020 and it is a more troubling outlook. We are just approaching the first release of white wines from last year, and we look forward to the results. The key difference in 2020 is that the fires started burning in August and never stopped. The devastation to the grape crop was widespread and nearly universal, a complete loss. The one opportunity to salvage some wine from 2020 will be vineyards that winemakers have begun to describe as “doughnut holes”. Vineyards that some how miraculously did not take on any smoke taint despite being surrounded by fires. We have heard of a couple of higher end Napa wineries that were fortunate to be in a “doughnut hole” and will be able to produce some red wine. Most though didn’t even harvest their grapes, opting to save on the harvest cost for what would certainly be smoke tainted wine. We urge consumers to be very careful if they see wine from 2020 in the market.
We suspect that as we approach the time for red wines to be released from this very tough vintage, we simply won’t see any wine from our favorite producers. Just like wines from 2017 wineries have too much at stake reputationally to sell smoke tainted wine, they will leave that to private label wines sold on the bulk market. One final note for wines from 2020, the guidance of a trusted wine professional will be vital. All of us taste all our wines before we ever put them on the shelf, if they have smoke, we will know it, and we won’t sell them.