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Napa 2020 ‘not lost’ despite smoke taint concerns

The 2020 vintage is 'not lost', Napa Valley Vintners has said, although the impact of smoke and wildfires is likely to mean less wine overall.

Smoke taint concerns and damage from recent wildfires mean fewer Napa Valley 2020 wines are set to be made overall, although the exact amount remains unknown.

Trade body Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) said that 80% of its members were still ‘moving forward’ with the vintage.

‘The 2020 vintage, while challenging, is not lost,’ said Linda Reiff, NVV president and CEO. ‘It’s too soon to speculate on volume, yet we can say it will be smaller than usual,’ she said.

Wildfires near to wine regions across the US west coast have seen laboratories working ‘24/7’ to test harvest samples for any signs of smoke taint in recent weeks.

When the Glass Fire ignited in the Deer Park area of Napa Valley in the early hours of 27 September, some wineries had already been assessing the impact of smoke from wildfires caused by lightning strikes in August.

Several wineries were damaged in the Glass Fire, albeit fewer than 20 suffered significant damage, according to California’s Wine Institute. Many homes were also destroyed and thousands of residents were evacuated from parts of Napa and Sonoma counties.

‘The Glass Fire has been truly frightening and unsettling here in Napa Valley (and in Sonoma), with tragic losses in terms of homes, wineries and land,’ said Beth Novak Milliken, CEO of Spottswoode, which survived unscathed on the valley floor.

‘Our community is pulling together, as it always does, to support and help one another as we forge our path forward.’

There are reports of producers harvesting fewer grapes than normal, yet other winemakers said they have good quality fruit from 2020 so far.

There is also caution, however. Research has shown that undesirable smoke taint aromas, such as ash or wet cigar, may sometimes only become apparent during the winemaking process.

‘I’m focusing on making the very best wine I can and hoping for the best,’ said Cathy Corison, winemaker and co-owner of Corison in St. Helana, who added that ‘everything is looking lovely’. Grapes were harvested by 15 September, before the Glass Fire.

‘All lots have finished fermentation and are pressed and down to barrels, ticking through malolactic fermentation,’ she told Decanter on 22 October.

Spottswoode was testing every lot and hadn’t detected smoke taint from the August lightning fires, said Novak Milliken. Harvest finished a day before the Glass Fire.

Winemaker Aaron Weinkauf and his team worked with smoke respirators in the cellars to manage fermentation, even though some of them had been evacuated from their homes.

Any outcome is still possible, said Novak Milliken, but she added, ‘We are quite optimistic that we will produce both Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2020 vintage.’

As for the labs, ‘we are still working 24/7 to assist our client[s] with possible smoke impact issues,’ said Gordon Burns, president and technical director of ETS Laboratories, based in St. Helena.

‘Turnaround times are now approaching normal, and there is some light at the end of the tunnel,’ he said.

At NVV, Reiff sought to reassure drinkers. ‘Only wine worthy of having Napa Valley on the label will make it into the bottle,’ she said.

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