Throughout the most beleaguered parts of Napa and Sonoma counties, the fires have left scorched, blackened fields and the occasional smoldering log. Almost invariably, though, they have left vineyards intact, with at worst a singeing around the fringes.
SONOMA, Calif. — As wildfires tore through Northern California wine country last week, the dire news piled up: buildings destroyed, workers displaced, precious housing stock lost. A fragile economy, at the mercy of nature even in a normal season, was threatened.
But as the smoke has begun to clear in recent days, those who depend on grape-growing and winemaking for a living have been relieved to find that the fires largely spared one crucial element in their path: the vineyards.
Throughout the most beleaguered parts of Napa and Sonoma counties, the fires have left scorched, blackened fields and the occasional smoldering log. Almost invariably, though, they have left vineyards, the region’s most precious resource, intact, with at worst a singeing around the fringes.
“It’s in way better shape than I ever imagined,” said Erich Bradley, the winemaker at Repris, in the Moon Mountain district outside this small city, who with the help of an electric generator was testing results of fermentations that had continued in his absence. The fires had approached but did not harm the buildings or vineyards. “It’s just a miracle,” he said.
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Still, several days of visits to the worst-hit parts of Napa and Sonoma counties indicated that despite a communal sense of relief that the worst had been dodged, the fires have created serious concerns for the near future. Potential damage to the grapes, which may take months or years to show itself, could affect the supply and quality of some of this year’s vintage.
Aside from the wine, tourism is what the industry depends on, as do all the peripheral components — restaurants, hotels, spas, tour guides — that exist to offer a glimpse of what the pioneering winemaker Robert Mondavi used to call “the good life.” October and November are peak months for Napa and Sonoma, a time when tourists flock to the region, visiting wineries to taste and, often, to enter into long-term relationships as customers.
Tres Sabores, a small winery tucked into the hills in the Rutherford Bench area of Napa Valley, depends on tours and visitors for its business. It has had more than 250 cancellations through November, a scenario repeated throughout the region, said Julie Johnson, the owner. “My team is losing tasting fees, sales, tips, commissions, wages — it’s a lot,” she said. “How can I provide for my team? That’s the thought in my head.”
Jeff Bundschu, whose family has owned Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma Valley since the mid-19th century, says visitors make up 20 percent of his winery’s business, more if they join the wine club and become regular customers. Yet Bundschu, who had to persuade his father to leave his house behind the winery before it burned down, says he is more concerned at the moment with the well-being of his 96 employees and the community at large. Like many in the area, he is trying to organize a fundraiser.
“We have a couple of weeks when the world is interested in us, and then the next disaster will strike, and we’ll be on our own,” he said.
A dozen or so winemaking facilities were damaged or destroyed by the fires in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, most notably Signorello Estate and White Rock Vineyards in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. But structures can be rebuilt in far less time than the years it would take for a newly planted vineyard to become productive.
A less tangible concern is that the roiling smoke that hovered over the region could somehow damage grapes that were not yet harvested.
Initial reports after the fires began suggested that much of the vintage had already been harvested. That was true of the white grapes. But many fine-wine producers in Napa and Sonoma still had red grapes hanging — particularly those for the riper, more voluptuous style that dominate in California, especially in Napa Valley. For many producers, as much as 30 percent of their Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, and Rhône grapes like grenache, had yet to be harvested.
Many producers had planned to pick these grapes just when the fires arrived, and then were unable to do so. As a result, many of those grapes were potentially susceptible to smoke taint, which can leave wine with an unpleasant, ashy flavor.
One thing is clear: A perception among consumers that the 2017 vintage is tainted would be bad for business, leading some producers to avoid discussing whether they still had grapes on the vines.
“I think more people picked before the fire than say they were at Woodstock,” said John Williams, the proprietor of Frog’s Leap Winery, which grows and makes cabernet sauvignon and other wines in Rutherford. “The most researched term on Google right now is ‘smoke taint.’”
Thirty percent of his estate cabernet grapes were still hanging a few days into the fires. Like many other producers, Frog’s Leap is processing the grapes picked after the fires started separately from those harvested before so that any potential taint will be confined.
Fear of smoke taint can force changes in winemaking protocols. Frog’s Leap depends on naturally occurring yeast to ferment its red grapes, Williams said, but manufactured yeast can be purchased that is said to either mask the smoke taint — if it exists — with fruity flavors or curtail the release of the smoky flavors.
In addition, the grapes can be handled more delicately than usual. Ordinarily, Frog’s Leap would pump the fermenting juice over the grape skins regularly to extract as much color, flavor and texture as possible. The skins remain with the juice until fermentation is complete, and then they are pressed to extract a little bit more. But with these grapes, Williams suggested, Frog’s Leap could do fewer pumpovers and press the skins before fermentation is complete. This might lead to other issues, like a loss of color and flavor.
Still other decisions loom. Producers may decide to use more heavily charred barrels to age these wines. The char will cause the wine to taste more oaky, but, since oak contains the same active compound found in smoke taint, albeit in a more agreeable form, it might mask any potential flaw.
Ultimately, if a wine proves unsatisfactory, many producers will sell it off, either to be bottled as a proprietary wine for wine clubs or other institutions, or on the bulk-wine market. They will earn something, but not nearly what they would have if they were bottling the wine themselves.
“We’ll have to make hard decisions if we want to make great wines,” Williams said. “Thirty percent of our cabernet business is a big hit.”