WineInk: 2020 California harvest begins — Another year, another fire
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2017 Chappellet Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
When the Lake Hennessey fire erupted there were immediate fears for the wineries of Pritchard Hill, which sit near the source of the ignition. Originally planted over 50 years ago by Donn Chappellet, the hillside vineyards are revered for their volcanic soils and the mountain grown Cabernet Sauvignon that hails from the slopes. I happened to have a bottle of this young concentrated and dark Cabernet Franc and I opened it as a prayer on that first Monday night. This past week Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an amazing story of how the community came together, using bulldozers to form fire lines, to save the wineries.
Prayers were answered. It’s worth a read.
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a reckoning about social injustice and a divisive election, the 2020 harvest of wine grapes has just commenced in the vineyards of the Northern Hemisphere. And in California you can add fires to the equation.
One of the things that make wine so interesting is that a wine is reborn every year. The cycle, from first bloom to harvest, is uniquely dependent on what is happening on Earth during that particular period of time when the grapes are grown. Each vintage is a snapshot of our lives, reflecting what is actually happening during that year.
Wine-lovers measure years of their lives by the different vintages that they have consumed or have collected. The year on the face of a label delineates the exact time when that wine was grown, harvested, made. The vintage expresses a particular version of that wine and the place it was made and, like a living thing, gives it a defining characteristic.
It will be interesting to see, say a decade from now, or perhaps even longer, how people will look back on the 2020 vintage. There is what happened in the vineyards and in the bottle, of course, but there is also the symbolism of the year. And a vintage from a year that has special history resonates in its own unique way.
The wines of 2001 are still tied to the events of 9/11 in many minds. In the Napa Valley the 2001 cabernets were just starting to be picked on that fateful Tuesday in early September when planes attacked New York and Washington. But the vintage was magnificent and now, 19 years later, there are those who are saying that it is the best vintage of this century for the region. Many of the wines are just coming into full maturity. But if you open one, it is almost impossible not to think of the significance of that year, that moment in time.
And one of the most historic vintages in history came in 1945 in France. After six years of war and the destruction of many vineyards, the famed “Victory Vintage” was one of the highest quality vintages ever recorded. For 50 years and more, the famed ’45s were consumed with both relish and nostalgia for the end of the horrific war.
But 2020 is a year like no other. It may well come to pass that this year goes down as one of the most disruptive in our collective memory. In much of California the harvest was just getting under way when a heat spike was quickly followed by a highly unusual lightning event. Tropical Storm Fausto spun off a series of dry lightning storms on Sunday and Monday, Aug. 16 and 17, and a plethora of fires ignited. The Hennessey Fire exploded on a ridge just to the east of the Napa Valley, and became one of the state’s largest in history. If there is a silver lining it is that the fire moved to the east, sparing the vineyards of Napa below.
That same day, the Walbridge fire started in Sonoma County. It burned largely to the west of the vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley and the pinot noir paradise of Westside Road. Between them, these ignitions wreaked havoc upon the first couple of weeks of harvest as wineries tried to schedule crews that were already limited due to COVID-19 safety measures.
Fires have become the norm in the past few years. In 2017, the Tubbs and the Atlas Peak fires both burned in October. In 2018, it was the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in California history before this year’s infernos. And in October of 2019, less than a year ago, the Kincade Fire threatened much of the Healdsburg and Alexander Valley wine regions after a power transmission line sparked flames.
What has become clear is that, while the vast majority of vineyards and wineries have been spared during these fires, it seems that vineyards make for perfect firebreaks, and threat of smoke taint is a critical factor in how vintages can be perceived. Some wineries have been forced to dump juice that may have been affected from past fires and it is a concern for others this year as the harvest just gets underway.
Yes, 2020 has already been quite a year. Perhaps this vintage will be a saving grace.
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