Better weather in the last two days has enabled thousands of firefighters to make progress in their efforts to contain blazes near to California wine country, including the Hennessy fire to the east of Napa Valley and the Walbridge fire to the west of Healdsburg.
Across California, multiple fires sparked by lightning strikes have caused seven deaths, destroyed 1,890 ‘structures’ – including homes – and burned through 1.35m acres (546,000 hectares), said Cal Fire in its 27 August update.
While wine industry bodies say fire damage to wineries and vineyards has been minimal, not everybody in the wine world has been fortunate. Two wineries have suffered damage, according to California’s Wine Institute.
‘We lost our vineyard, winery, and distillery in the LNU Lightning Complex Fire,’ said La Borgata winery, based near to Vacaville in Solano County, on its website. A relief fund has been started to help the owners rebuild.
To the south of San Francisco, Bradley Brown, owner of Big Basin Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, told Food & Wine of how he lost his home and 2020 crop – although his winery survived.
Others have spoken of the stress of the situation, which some in California have called a ‘new normal’ following a series of fires in recent years.
Lisa Mattson, of Jordan Winery, told Decanter.com, ‘The last eight days have felt like months with wildfires burning slowly to the west of Jordan Winery in remote parts of Sonoma County.
‘With the 2019 Kincade Fire still fresh in our minds, it has been a very stressful time for our community, especially because harvest has barely started—and we still have at least two months of fire season ahead of us.’
Many wine trade associations and winemakers praised the efforts of fire crews. ‘We are incredibly thankful for the first responders who are selflessly dedicated and tirelessly working to protect our county,’ said Rose Jimenez, spokesperson for Sonoma County Vintners.
While producers cautioned that it was too soon to know the full impact of fires, the challenge has been to keep their 2020 harvest plans on-track.
In Napa Valley, ‘harvest has just begun, and vineyard and winery crews have been able to safely move forward with harvesting white wine and early ripening reds’, said Teresa Wall, of Napa Valley Vintners.
California’s Wine Institute said that harvest was going ‘full steam ahead’, albeit with extra safety measures to Covid-19. At Sonoma County Vintners, Jimenez added that only 0.05% of Sonoma County’s 1.1m acres of land had been impacted by fires.
Some reports have raised concerns about smoke taint affecting parts of the vintage, but it is very early days.
‘The potential impacts of smoke are unknown at this time,’ said Wall. ‘Much of the valley woke to blue skies last week and remained in good to moderate air [for] a majority of the week.’
She said there is ‘no one size fits all answer’ when it comes to assessing smoke impact, particularly given the varied climate and topography of Napa Valley. ‘Everything possible will be done to ensure only the highest quality 2020 vintage wines go to market.’
At Jordan in Sonoma County, where the Chardonnay harvest began in the early hours of 26 August, the winemaking team was upbeat. Ash fell on ‘a few’ vineyards immediately to the south of the fire zone, but there were no signs of taint so far.
‘We are continuing to be optimistic as we sample more Chardonnay vineyards and taste not only smoke-free fruit, but delicious fruit flavours with intense acidity,’ said Maggie Kruse, Jordan’s winemaker.
‘I am very optimistic that we are going to come out of this nail-biter unscathed,’ said Dana Grande, grower relations manager at Jordan, who has spent the past three days inspecting vineyards in the Russian River Valley and also Alexander Valley. ‘Our growers have been working day and night to ensure that the best quality fruit is delivered to the winery.’
The team said its Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was probably around three or four weeks away from harvest, and was also several miles east and north-east of the fire zone. ‘Out of an abundance of caution,’ Kruse and Grande planned to micro-ferment samples for testing.
Jimenez added, ‘These fires are focused in one small area of Sonoma County and if there are impacts, it would not impact the entire 2020 vintage.’
California’s Wine Institute cited information from Dr Anita Oberholster, a specialist from nearby UC Davis, to highlight that smoke taint is only a problem in very specific circumstances. A spokesperson said that, ‘To have an impact on the grapes, the smoke has to be fresh (less than 24 hours), dense and in close proximity to the grapes. Wind direction, stage of development and variety of the grapes are also factors.’
She added, ‘Despite the wildfires, California vintners and growers will produce
high quality wines.’ She said the overall size of the vintage was expected to be smaller than average, but that wine cellars were already well stocked.