WineInk: How will 2020 wines survive a historic wildfire season? |

WineInk: How will 2020 wines survive a historic wildfire season?

Kelly J. Hayes

Under the Influence

2018 MacCrostie Russian River Valley Chardonnay

“They’re evacuating Westside Road” was the tweet I received from a winemaker earlier this harvest season as the fires raged through Sonoma County. I could only consider the worst as I ticked through the pinot and chardonnay producers who line the road that has famously been called the “Rodeo Drive of American Pinot.” When my mind’s eye came to the beautiful MacCrostie tasting room, I physically cringed.

I opened this bottle of chardonnay after the fires took a turn in a different direction. It tasted like summer with hits of citrus and sunshine. I smiled as I sipped, relieved that they will be making another vintage of this in their winery.

It was the first time I had seen a press release with an announcement of this kind.

It began, “Craig Becker, co-founder, general manager and director of viticulture and winemaking of Somerston Estate, announced today that his team will not harvest any fruit from the 2020 vintage due to smoke damage from Northern California’s Hennessey Fire.” Instantly I felt sadness for the folks at Somerston, but also admiration for the courage it took to make the assessment and tell the world about their decision to forgo, for the sake of quality, an entire year’s harvest.

“At Somerston, we take pride in the grapes we grow, sell, and vinify,” it continued. “We make no compromises,” Craig Becker says. “We stand unwavering in our long-term commitment to this property, as well as to our winery partners, customers and distributors.” I, for one, look forward to the resurgence and the 2021 Somerston vintage. A premier producer of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, Somerston also provides grapes for a dozen other high-end Napa wineries. But not this year.

I first wrote about smoke taint in this space in 2009. I had been in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and watched with horror as the region was covered in smoke. One vintner told me that after the large forest fire had blanketed his vineyards with smoke, the wines had “that taste you get when someone puts their cigarette out in your coke.” Yuck.

Now, in 2020, fires, and the effects they have on vitis vinifera, wine grapes, have become the most important story in wine. This past spring in Australia, harvest season for those down under, the largest bush fires in modern history turned the skies to smoke and ash over many prized vineyards. Now this fall, harvest time in the Northern Hemisphere, a rash of unprecedented fires has blanketed most of California and many of Oregon’s and Washington’s wine regions in the same kind of harmful clouds of toxicity.

Even here, in the Grand Mesa wine region of Colorado, the Pine Gulch and Grizzly Creek fires created fears for the 2020 vintage. Kaibab Sauvage, who has grown wine grapes in the region for two decades, said “The smoke in the valley earlier in the season was a major concern for growers who already had a light crop.”

Studies from the Australian Wine Research Institute and the enology department of California’s UC-Davis have shown that the biggest threat comes from high concentrations of volatile phenols found in dense smoke. Grape skins, vines and leaves can all absorb levels of chemical compounds called guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol. Because these compounds are absorbed systemically, it is not possible to simply wash them from the skins. Certain grapes with thin skins, such as pinot noir and sangiovese, appear to be highly susceptible to the taint. But studies have shown impacts on other varieties as well.

Nearly all California winemakers are attempting to test for the compounds. Some are doing small-batch tests in their own facilities as there have been backlogs at the laboratories that specialize in testing. Sound familiar?

Sauvage says timing has been important for the local wine industry. “Fortunately, the smoke cleared and the fires were contained,” he noted about the Colorado infernos. “We personally sent out two separate analyses to a well-known laboratory in California to test for smoke taint. The first sample came back on the lowest potentially perceivable threshold of .5 ppb and the second sample (was) unchanged, leaving us with a sense of relief that 2020 was not a loss.”

While fears are predominate out west, solutions are hard to come by. There are a few techniques being tried to rid grapes of smoke, including one process where the grapes are heated with a vapor causing the skins to release phenols before fermentation. But as of yet there are no reliable ways to pull the smoke from grape skins once the levels of volatile phenols become problematic.

All of which leads winemakers like Somerston Estate to make tough decisions on whether to proceed with a vintage that may have been compromised. In wine, reputation and relationships with customers are the most important commodities. In speaking with one winemaker, who asked to remain anonymous, it was clear that his decision has been made. “It is better to just dump the juice than to make a wine that is flawed. The quality of our product is who we are. Making good wine is what we do.”

The wine game just keeps getting harder all the time.