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Wine Country Fires - Again?
By Rich Cook
Oct 6, 2020
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As if 2020 hasn't been a year of enough trial and tribulation, at this time of writing a good portion of our beloved wine producing regions are again under fire threat, with huge loss of property, inventory and vineyard land already in the books for the year.  When lumped together with other wine growing area fires that have occurred in California over the last 13 years, the damages total billions of dollars in property damage and firefighting costs, not to mention priceless loss of life.

From a wine production standpoint, the time that fires occur can have an even larger impact than loss of structures and equipment.  This year, perhaps more than anytime sine the 2008 vintage, many wineries fear that a portion of their harvest may be smoke damaged to the point of no return, meaning that entire crops may not even be harvested.  Some vineyards have actually burned in this year's Glass Fire (yes, we now name fires like we name hurricanes).  Some vineyards will escape damage due to their geography coupled with their proximity to fires, some might get significant damage from fires that are burning quite a distance away when prevailing wind patterns channel smoke into their vineyards at the wrong time, and some may make harvest decisions that get fruit off of the vines without damage (but possibly sacrificing degrees of ripeness that they might have been planning on).  Just about any scenario you can imagine is in play, and the thought of it all certainly make me deeply appreciate anyone who chooses to farm anything that benefits so many.

A quick overview of Glass Fire wine related losses to date:

Winery damage - Castello Di Amorosa (winemaking facility, inventory) Chateau Boswell (winery), Cain (winery, out buildings, 2019 and 2020 vintages), Fairwinds (winery), Behrens Family (winery), Bremer Family (vineyards), Davis Estates (equipment), Burgess Cellars (winery), Hourglass (winery/guest house), Merus (equipment), Sterling (damage TBA), Tuck Beckstoffer, Spring Mountain (vineyard),  Tofanelli (vineyard/barn), Sherwin Family (winery), Paloma (winery), Newton(winery), Hunnicutt (equipment)

Related damages - The Restaurant at Meadowood, Calistoga Ranch

At this point, the total damage at these sites is not fully known but may include more than what is listed here.  All of us at Wine Review Online extend our hopes and wishes to all those listed above for best possible outcomes.  Sadly, the damages will extend far beyond the directly impacted.

With all that's going on in the news cycle today, it's easy to miss the full economic impact that a lost harvest can have on both individual producers and the wine industry at large.  Several wineries are already reporting that they won't produce a 2020 vintage of some or all of their red wines due to smoke taint issues.  A look at smoke taint will help us unearth a few factors that might go unnoticed.

First, smoke taint.  What is it, and why is it such a big deal?  Basically, it's an event where volatile phenolic compounds from burning wood and vegetation (read, undesirable) get into the grapes on the vine.  The sugar in the grape bonds with the volatile compounds and neutralizes them.  In other words, after a fire, if you wash the ash off a grape cluster and taste a few grapes, you won't notice any problem.  What makes smoke taint so insidious is that the fermentation process and acid concentration of winemaking breaks the bond and the phenols become a problem.  A lab test is required to determine whether or not grapes are affected and to what degree.  A recent conversation with a winery representative in the fire zone said that the fire prior to the current Glass Fire had produced a backlog of testing requests that was more than two weeks long -- two weeks that can make or break a vintage at harvest time.  On top of that, a vintner's production methodology might be such that the taint may take some time in the bottle to show itself, meaning a winery risks a full vintage’s worth of expense to complete the process only to have to recall bottles from the marketplace at an additional expense.  OUCH!

All that said, smoke taint isn't always a deal breaker.  Long time wine writer Mike Dunne recently posted -- tongue firmly in cheek -- a "smoke taint thermometer" (not unlike the sweetness thermometer found on many Riesling labels) that ranges from "whiff of Gauloises" to "dive bar ash tray."  While I'm guessing that it's not coming to back label near you any time soon, it does get at the point that there are levels of taint, and that some tasters may actually like a little dash of stogie in their glass.  After the 2008 fires that affected Mendocino county, a famed producer in Anderson Valley released three different smoke tainted reds under a second label, making no secret of the issue and marketing them at a discount price to people who might like the characteristic.  This isn't always an option, however, and with today's glut of wine available and softening market demand for wine overall, sometimes the wise choice is to stop the expense train before it crashes your entire operation.

In that case the harvest is, quite literally, left hanging, which in turn results in a huge domino effect situation that has tangible and sometimes dire economic effects.

Here's a scenario: Let's say Napa Valley's Ricardo Cocinero Estates is impacted by the fires, is able to test for taint in a timely manner (because someone at the lab owes them a favor) and receives an unfavorable result and decides to stop the expense train cold and not pick the vintage.  Picking crews, often paid by the pound, lose work, and aren't able to go and pick at neighboring vineyards who are in the same predicament.  Additionally, Cocinero had committed 30% of its 2020 Cabernet crop to garagiste producer Winnefred Wines, who now has to look out-of-appellation for fruit, and likely won't be able to satisfy their contracts with restaurants or retailers who won't be satisfied with wine produced from Wombat Gulch AVA fruit.  Cocinero is also on the phone with Pepe le Negociant, with whom they shook on a deal to take five hundred cases of the 2019 Cabernet that they needed to clear out to make room for the 2020 vintage which is now being consumed by the birds.  Sure, they'll be some bulk wine available to meet some contracts, but the price is going up the longer the fire burns, and Cocinero is left weighing the risk of potential long-term damage that could be done to their brand if they take a dip in the bulk pool.  And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Still thinking it'd be fun to own a winery?

It's important to keep in mind that some of the areas burning now haven't burned in over 100 years.  On Spring Mountain, one of the areas hardest hit by the Glass Fire, some properties have escaped major damage thus far, and some have part or all of the 2020 harvest safely tucked away already.  On the other hand, the fire is now marching east toward vineyards in Lake County, and any change in the weather can change the overall situation for better or worse in the blink of an eye.  

For a little perspective, the Tubbs Fire that wiped out over 36,000 acres and damaged so many homes and wineries in the Napa/Sonoma/Lake county area started on October 8th 2017, wasn't fully contained until October 31st 2017, and was listed as active by CalFire until February 9th 2018: fully 123 days after it began.  The Glass Fire started on September 27th, has burned over 65,000 acres to date, and is listed as 30% contained.

I'm ready for 2020 to end.

More columns:    Rich Cook
Connect with Rich on Twitter at @RichCookOnWine