Via email and from questions asked in the shop this past week the fires burning across the west and their proximity to vineyards are on many minds. At the risk of writing too much about the same subject I do want to answer questions and clear up some misunderstandings about the effect of wild fires on the wine grape crop. As we have mentioned in previous weeks what makes the fires this year of such great concern is how early they started. Back in 2017 when the devastating fires burned through Sonoma and Napa Counties they started in October, and harvest was largely complete. Only a very small percentage of the grapes were “still hanging”. This year though when the fires really got going as the result of lightning storms harvest had barely begun so much of the crop was and, in some cases, still is in the field.
Additionally, the prevailing wind direction has caused the smoke to settle over vineyard land for days in a row, a far worse scenario. Once the grapes go through verasion, or the changing of color of the grapes as they ripen the crop is at its most vulnerable to smoke taint as the skins become porous. Verasion typically happens in July so all of the crop was vulnerable by the time the fires got going in late August and early September.
I also feel compelled to correct a column that ran from the AP in the Coeur d’Alene Press this week. Once wine grapes are tainted with smoke there is nothing that can be done to remove the smoke. We know and regularly talk to many winemakers and grape growers across the wine producing regions of the Western US, and to a person they agree once grapes have smoke taint, they are done. Many techniques and procedures have been tried but once the smoke is there, it is there to stay. The responsible winemakers at this point have nothing more to do than “bulk out” the tainted wine to private label sellers.
This is part of the challenge and some of the most frequent questions we have received this past week. How do winemakers know if the grapes are tainted with smoke? It is challenging. You can’t really tell until the grapes are harvested and start to be fermented. Once fermentation starts and the grapes begin to “bubble” is when the smoke comes out, this is the only certain way to know. There are also many labs around wine grape producing regions that can reliably test for smoke taint. The challenge though this year is that with wildfire smoke being so widespread the labs are severely backed up on testing. This has left growers and winemakers alike in the tough spot of having to decide whether to harvest or not.
Each step of the winemaking process brings with it costs. Harvesting the grapes and having them go through fermentation is a significant one, and the decision at times can’t wait for lab results that may or may not come due to the back up in testing. Just this past week we learned via email that Chateau Montelena a prominent and great producer located in the heart of Napa Valley made the gut-wrenching decision to not pick a single red grape this year! The idea of a big-name winery like Montelena foregoing an entire vintage of red wine is tough to get our minds around. There will likely be more.
Many have asked too which regions in the west are affected. California and Oregon are taking the worst of the damage. In California though unlike previous years it covers all of the wine grape producing areas. From Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties in the north, to the Santa Cruz Mountains on the central coast and south to Santa Barbara virtually every valley is being impacted. In Oregon the Willamette Valley to the south and west of Portland and the warmer regions of the Rogue Valley in the south are seeing dense smoke. Washington and Idaho are by far fairing the best and the majority of the crop in both states is in good shape.
Our best hope is that not all is lost for all producers. We talked with one winemaker this past week who had harvested Grenache for the production of their best-selling rosé. While they were concerned about smoke taint, they took a unique approach to being able to make this favorite wine. First, they did a very light press on the harvested grapes and at the same time got the juice quickly off the skins. While skin contact is always minimized when making rosé to give it just the slightest of pink color, they moved even more quickly this time. They then did a deeper press on the grapes but in another tank. In the event that this second press brought out more of the smoke they opted to separate the lots keeping the free run juice safe.
Only time will tell if this approach worked, but it will take this level of creativity to salvage wine from the 2020 vintage. It seems to be a year determined to test all of us in so many ways with an abundance of never before circumstances.