Fire and Smoke: The effect of the fires on Napa and Sonoma
As of last Friday, when the first few drops of rain in months fell on California wine country, the fires that caused so much death and destruction were declared to be contained. The panic of the evacuations became never-to-be-forgotten memories as the attention of residents and winemakers turned toward the future. Vintners have begun to assess damage and get back to the job at hand: getting the 2017 vintage ready for release.
While there were casualties, in the grand scheme of things there is reason for some optimism. The vast majority of wineries and tasting rooms in both Napa and Sonoma were spared, and many are already opening back up to the public. As of Oct. 18, the Napa Valley Vintners trade association said that it had heard from 330 of their over 500 members and 47 had reported direct property damage. Ah, there will be tales told in the tasting rooms this fall and winter.
The good news is that around 90 percent of the 2017 vintage had already been harvested by the time of the first flames on the evening of Oct. 8. A September heat spike that sent temperatures tickling record territory had prompted some early harvests and what was still left on the vines were thicker-skinned, heartier varieties like cabernet sauvignon.
For those grapes that were already harvested and in the fermentation tanks, the immediate concern was a lack of power to wineries. Most wineries had back-up generators and were able to ride out the power shortages. A few had to evacuate in a hurry leaving open top fermenting tanks that may have absorbed smoke and ash which could prove to be problematic.
There will, of course, be questions about the 2017 vintage going forward. Will there be a decrease in total production and will that affect wine prices for the vintage? And will smoke taint be an issue?
As to the first, while Napa and Sonoma are the best-known regions for California wine, their production represents just a part of California’s overall wine production. Over 80 percent of the grapes harvested in the state come from other regions. While there may be a decline in availability of some limited production 2017 vintage wines from Napa and Sonoma it should not have a significant impact on the prices of California wines. Remember many of the fine wines produced in these regions will not be released for two years or more from now.
Which brings us to the second question. While much of the information on how smoke affects wine is anecdotal, it is clear that smoke taint is a real thing. The Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide has long studied the influence of smoke on the taste of wine. Fires in 2003, 2006 and 2009 provided the Institute with a wealth of information on how grapes are affected by smoke.
Basically, their research shows that grape skins, vines and leaves all absorb levels of chemical compounds called guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol that are present in smoke. Because these compounds are absorbed systemically it is not possible to simply wash them from the skins. Certain grapes, such as pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese, appear to be highly susceptible to the taint.
But there are ways to mitigate the damage from a smoky infusion. Some Aussie winemakers have used reverse osmosis to “split” their wines into multiple components and pull out the smoky compounds. And keep in mind with 90 percent of the harvest already in, the vast majority of grapes for the 2017 vintage should not be affected.
At the wineries themselves there will inevitably be stressful times ahead. Winemaking is all about teamwork and timing and many winery workers are dealing with lost homes and lives that have been disrupted. The usual work that goes into making wine is intense at this time of year anyway, but this harvest season will, no doubt, be more stressful than vintages of the past.
Still, many in wine country consider themselves fortunate that the fires did not do more damage. There is a sense of relief as they begin the task and the process of getting back to a “new normal.” It may take awhile but the wine communities will rebound and come back stronger.
In the meantime buying California wine and planning visits to the region is the best way to show your support for the people in wine country. It has been a hard autumn but there are brighter days ahead.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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