Wildfires blazed through much of the West Coast and California’s wine country in 2020, leaving behind destroyed properties and smoke-tainted grapes. As winemakers and vineyards have faced the difficult decision of whether to dump, repurpose, or attempt to salvage grapes, the viability of 2020 wines has hung in the balance.
On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” co-hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe reflect on how smoke taint could impact the ability to sell 2020 wines. The three chat about fears winemakers and buyers might have, and whether the average consumer pays any mind to vintages anymore.
Tune in to hear Teeter, Sciarrino, and Geballe’s takes on 2020 California wines, plus the latest drinks they’ve been enjoying.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: From Toronto, Canada, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe
A: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Joanna, it sounded like you were unsure if you’re in Toronto.
J: I forgot where I was for a second.
Z: This is a rare international podcast. We’ve got a few. Adam and I did one in Italy.
A: I did one from Chile.
Z: We’ve been all over. But Joanna’s taking it up to the Great White North.
J: Yes. I’m here for a family visit with my partner’s family.
Z: My most important question about visiting Canada is have you had Tim Hortons yet? Timbits?
J: I have. I had some Timbits and some coffee. I don’t know what the special coffee order is here, though.
A: You know they have Tim Hortons in New York, right?
Z: It’s still fun.
A: Have you had poutine?
J: No poutine yet, but I have had ketchup chips.
A: Oh, those are so good.
J: They’re the best.
A: Yeah, they’re great. Canada, man. Lay’s ketchup-flavored chips. Well, Joanna, let’s start with you. What have you been drinking? What have you been up to now that you’re north of the border hanging out with moose?
A: How much does Tim pay you to promote his podcast every single week?
J: I’m supporting, OK?
Z: Joanna’s aiming for that guest appearance on “Cocktail College.”
A: The Martini did sound pretty delicious.
A: Nice. And things that you’ve been up to since?
J: Yes. We went to a bar downtown called Eastbound Brewing Company. I had some good beers there. One of the first trips we made was to the local LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which I love. It’s the best place ever. It’s a massive liquor and beer store, and it’s pretty much the only place you can buy alcohol in Ontario. We got some Steam Whistle, which is some of my favorite beer in Ontario. They had a harvest lager, which was not flavored or anything. It was just amber flavors. My father-in-law asked, “Does it have pumpkin in it or something?”
A: Very cool. Zach, I don’t know if you’ve had time to drink. It seems like you’ve been busy with a child.
Z: Oh, yes, I’ve had time.
A: So, what have you been up to, man?
Z: You know, having a kid. Baby Lilah came on Friday. That was pretty exciting.
A: I’m still sad that you didn’t name your child VinePair, but whatever.
Z: Someone suggested Cocktail College Geballe, but we decided not to go that route. We brought a half-bottle of sparkling wine with us and had that in the hospital room the next day. It’s funny with kids. You don’t know exactly when they’re going to come. You don’t know exactly when you’re going to be a little bit less stressed out and ready to relax and celebrate a little bit. That ended up being lunch the day after she was born.
A: It’s funny that you say that. My buddy is a doctor who works at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Conn. They started a promotion a few years ago that’s become a really big deal, to encourage you to give birth there. They get a lot of people from the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side who will venture to Greenwich Hospital to give birth. They give you a steak and Champagne dinner after the baby’s born, which I think is hilarious.
J: Oh, my God.
Z: I definitely ate hospital meatloaf. That was what I got. They do a little celebratory meal, but it definitely comes with Martinelli’s apple cider and not anything that I would actually want to drink. Other than that, it’s been kind of quiet on the drinking front for the most part. I had a little bit of Scotch when I got home. Over the pandemic, we’ve splurged on bulking out the very high-end whiskey selection at home. I had some Macallan 18, which is always tasty, and is one of my wife’s favorites. We had a little bit of that the other night. Really, it was this sparkling wine and just getting used to life with two kids. Man, it is wild. One was a lot. Two is a whole other thing. How about you, Adam?
A: Gosh, it’s been crazy since we recorded last week. It’s been just nutty.
Z: I assume you finished the rest of the Flannel Pack?
A: Just slammed it. No. It was Naomi’s birthday last weekend. First, we went to our favorite place, Miss Ada, in our neighborhood. We had amazing food. There, I had a really delicious cocktail, which was a frozen Jungle Bird, which I’d never had before. I enjoy a Jungle Bird. Frozen, it was actually quite excellent.
Z: What was the consistency like?
A: Thick. It was not watery. It was very much a solidly delicious slush.
Z: That’s such a hard thing to get right with frozen alcoholic drinks. It can be really hard to get the consistency right because alcohol obviously freezes at a lower temperature than water.
A: Yeah. It was good. I don’t know what they did, but it was good. I’m a terrible frozen drink cocktail maker.
Z: It’s really hard to do at home.
A: It always comes out super chunky or watery. That night, we went to dinner at Fausto, which was awesome. We had Joe Campanale on the podcast early on in Covid. So, it was really cool to go to the restaurant now that it’s reopened. The food was delicious, and at the end of the night, we had some amaro, which was good. The next day we took a cemetery tour because Naomi really wanted to hang out at the cemetery. That was pretty funny on her birthday. We went with Josh and another friend of ours. Then, we went across the street to this really cool Mexican taco spot, and we had frozen Painkillers. They were really awesome.
Z: Can you explain to me what you do on a cemetery tour? Are you looking at the graves of famous people?
A: Yeah. It was at Greenwood Cemetery. It was actually New York’s first park. When it was built, it was built as a park cemetery. I guess they were all the rage in the 1800s. It actually existed before Central Park. I’ve learned all this on the tour. They used to get upwards of 600,000 or so visitors a year. They realized that New York needed a park. A bunch of very wealthy New Yorkers from Brooklyn Heights convinced the mayor that, as they were developing up the island of Manhattan, they should save land for a park. That’s how Central Park came to be. It was because of the success of Greenwood. There’s some really cool people who are buried there. Leonard Bernstein, Basquiat.
J: I think I have some relatives buried there.
A: Really? Cool. You should go.
Z: You didn’t visit the Sciarrino wing?
A: No. Lots of really cool old mausoleums. There were lots of people taking tours. We did the cemetery tour, but there were people on a mushroom tour. I asked if you were on mushrooms when you took the tour, or were you there to look at mushrooms? It turns out you were there to look at mushrooms, not to do them.
Z: On the topic of you questioning my use of psychedelics on the podcast previously, psilocybin and such have been decriminalized here in Seattle. In the future, I could be.
J: Let us know first, OK?
Z: We’ll see. If we get too deep into the Friday podcast and I’m drinking mushroom tea, you’ll know we’ve run out of ideas.
A: So, this week’s episode is all about fire damage. Zach, this is a conversation you’ve been wanting to have, so why don’t you set us up?
Z: Absolutely. A thing that I’ve heard from a number of different producers up and down the West Coast is a lot of concern and fear that wine buyers, sommeliers, and consumers more broadly are going to look at this 2020 vintage and essentially write it off from all of the West Coast. Obviously, there have been vintages in recent memory, like ’17 and ’18 with more limited fire damage, but the scope of it was pretty big in 2020. The concern they’ve expressed is that, instead of doing what you would assume buyers would do with any wine and try it before they make up their mind, they’re just going to write off the entire vintage. Some of that might be fear mongering on the part of producers who are understandably concerned about their livelihood and the future of their wineries. I do think it’s interesting, though. I wanted to get a sense from both of you as we set off in this conversation, as we’re thinking about how VinePair will cover these wines. We’re mostly talking about red wine. Most of them are not yet released, but they will be hitting the market in the next six months to a year. I feel like it does present an interesting challenge to all of us. How do we approach wines where, maybe more than any other time in the past, people are going to be looking to see if they can find smoke taint?
A: It’s a tough question to ask. There obviously was horrible damage. Some people went ahead and threw their vintages out. Other people didn’t. This puts the producers who didn’t in a really tough position. You could be 100 percent positive that your wine doesn’t have smoke taint, right? You’re the winemaker. You tasted the wine throughout the entire process of fermentation. You put them into oak to age. You could know deep down that the wines don’t have smoke taint.
J: Doesn’t it change sometimes?
A: Sometimes, yeah. What I’m even more concerned about is that I think there will be a lot of people who say, “We don’t care what you say, that’s not true.” There is so much wine that has been dumped, so people assume that everyone was screwed over. If you’re the one winery that didn’t, for whatever reason — maybe you picked earlier than other people, maybe you are in an area of the West Coast that didn’t experience smoke taint in such a pervasive way — it may not matter, because of the bias that I think people in the know will have against it. That bias is going to be so bad. There’s going to be a lot of people who become very defensive.
Z: Yes. It is definitely happening.
A: I don’t know how you prevent that. If I was one of the winemakers that was forced to dump my wines and couldn’t put it out because it wouldn’t be high quality, I’d be annoyed if there was someone that escaped that fate. I would question how they did. I don’t know how you deal with that, though. It’s just not going to be a great situation.
Z: A complicating factor in this is that our understanding, both scientifically and winemaking- wise, of smoke taint is still pretty rudimentary. It’s very hard. At many points in the process, wineries have tried to detect or diagnose whether smoke taint is present in their wines. The honest truth is that the technology for assessing that is not great. It’s being worked on as this becomes more and more prevalent. It’s not necessarily as fleshed out as you would want, though. Individual humans have really different thresholds for when they can detect smoke taint. It’s also complicated because some of the flavors that we associate with smoke taint can also be present in certain ways, in certain fashions, and in certain wines through other means. There are flavors and aromas naturally present in the wine, flavors and aromas from oak, et cetera. It’s a very messy, complicated situation. Some wineries undoubtedly said, “You know what? We would rather dump an entire vintage or only make rosé and white wine than put wine out that, down the road, someone might open and say, ‘This is tainted.'” That becomes more of a PR nightmare, especially if you’re a really high-end winery or a prominent critic says that. Now, that wine is basically worthless. As Joanna asked — I think it’s an important point to note here, because our understanding of how smoke taint presents in wine is still not fully fleshed out — it’s possible that wineries could have, in absolute best faith, thought their grapes and wine were fine through vinification and aging. They can put it in bottle, and we might find in time that maybe it’s not. These compounds can become more prominent as the wine ages. It’s a huge mess. Joanna, do you have a visceral response to any of this? If someone were to say to you, “Buy this 2020 wine,” are you going to recoil from it if it’s from somewhere that might have had a reasonable chance of smoke taint?
J: No, I mean, I know what I know because of this job, and I feel like a lot of ordinary folks probably don’t know about smoke taint and how it will affect wine. I feel like I’d be more curious to try it and see for myself than to just abstain from buying 2020 wine.
Z: Does that calculus change, though, if we’re talking about a $200 bottle of Napa Cabernet instead of a $20 a bottle of red wine from somewhere in California?
J: That’s a good question. Yes, I would probably avoid that.
Z: Yeah. That’s one of the areas where we’ve seen a lot of producers say, “Either we’re not producing a 2020 vintage or we will only release this wine if we are 100 percent certain that there is no smoke taint.” Adam, what have you heard? You were in California not that long ago and you have lots of connections down there. Are you hearing the same kind of concern with people who are worried that, even if they think their wine is totally fine, people aren’t going to buy it?
A: There’s a lot of discussion among producers as to whether people who are not dumping this vintage are telling the truth. Or, did they adequately test? There’s a lot of people trying to claim that certain people’s testing methods may or may not have worked. There’s conversations about how the only way to really test it is if you had access to a really advanced lab. That lab was so backed up, and the results were coming back days later. It was happening almost too late where, if you were going to make the decision to pick, you just had to pick. There’s a few wineries that have their own labs and were able to do that, but those are also the bigger companies, the larger wine organizations. Maybe they had more access to information than some people. I think that everyone’s really torn. The easy answer was to just dump because they don’t want a scenario to occur that you just questioned, Zach. It’s the question of, “Are you going to buy this $200 bottle?” I think you might see others who discount this vintage. Maybe that vintage is not $200. Maybe it’s $125, and you can take your own risk. The winemakers are telling you it’s good, but because they can’t make you feel super comfortable, they’re not going to charge you $200 like they normally would. There were also people who picked early. Everyone still doesn’t really know what to say or do. I do think we will get 2020s that come into our office. I think we will taste them and see for ourselves. There’s probably a lot of critics who are already tasting some initial stuff, because not everyone dumped.
J: Didn’t a lot of people also pivot to making rosé instead, if they could salvage the grapes for that?
A: Some people did. They could pick early enough, so they did. Part of what some people claim is that smoke taint truly comes out the strongest in the reds. There were people that pivoted that way. It just really remains to be seen. Where is this going to really net out? How much was this vintage truly affected? How much are we going to see people who just don’t buy at all?
Z: This leads me to a question I wanted to ask the both of you. When you first start learning about wine, you get taught that vintages matter. Consecutive years in a growing region can be different and the wines, as a result, can be quite different. You can learn what the great vintages are, and you can even get a vintage chart. These things all exist. The more I tasted and learned about wine, the more I realized that there are some generalities you can make about vintages and there are places in the world where vintages do matter more than others. With marginal climates, you’re going to have a bigger difference between the style of wine that’s possible in a cold vintage versus a warm vintage. In certain other places, there’s just less variability for a variety of reasons. The thing that I really have learned in my time as a wine professional is that anything more general than a small area or individual vineyard is just too big of a generalization. I think that we’re going to see that with 2020. Frankly, I think we’re also seeing that with Europe in 2021. There’s a lot of adverse weather. Adverse weather is hard to pin down, though, because vineyards a couple of miles away can be affected really differently. It can rain or hail really heavily in one spot and not in another. You can be protected from wind and cold in certain ways. The thing that this whole conversation about this 2020 vintage has made me think is that it might be an opportunity for some of these wineries, producers, buyers, and consumers to get away from lazy shorthand around vintages. I don’t think it really serves anyone well to say that 2020 was a bad vintage in California. What does that even mean? You might have noticed, but California’s a large place, and they grow grapes all over it. Even in narrower regions like Napa or Sonoma, there’s so much difference from one individual sub-AVA to another individual sub-AVA. Even within those sub-AVAs, there’s differences. It’s a frustration I have that people want a pithy two-sentence summary of a vintage for an entire region. I’m curious for you, Joanna, as someone who’s continuing to learn about these things — we’re all continuing to learn, of course. When you hear someone talk about it being a good vintage or a bad vintage, what do you think about that?
J: Yeah. I understand that that’s a thing in wine and that it’s something that people who care about wine and are really into fine wine care about. In the way that you’re talking about it, Zach, it just seems very nonsensical to me. If someone tells me that there’s a really wonderful vintage and I have the opportunity to try something like that, great, but I certainly wouldn’t turn away from other vintages as a result of that,
A: To be clear, 99.9 percent of the people who drink wine are going to see 2020 on the label and buy the wine, because they don’t care. Some of the top wine shops won’t take in the $250 Napa Cab, but there’s going to be a lot of 2020 wine from the West Coast that is sold, because the majority of wine consumers don’t look at vintages. If there is a beverage director or a buyer who trusts their rep and the rep is saying, “These wines are fine,” they’re going to sell them. The producers that won’t be able to sell their wine will be the producers who are primarily DTC brands. These are places like wineries that have massive wine clubs. That is like .2 percent of the wine drinking public, and that is a very different consumer who normally trusted you. Now, they’ve done enough reading to say, “I’ve heard that this year was bad.” They’re not going to buy. Certain high-end wine lists may not buy, either. I actually don’t think that’s 100 percent true, though, because the buyers at those high-end wine lists at these top restaurants will taste the wines. If they still think the wines are sound, they will bring them in. It really is only going to affect a very small percentage of the super-high-end fine wine market. The rest of the wines are either fine or consumers aren’t gonna care. It’s character. If you ask most people what the best vintage was in the last 20 years in Napa, they couldn’t tell you. They wouldn’t know, and they wouldn’t care. Only super-high-end collectors are looking at it. Most people are going to still want to drink California wine, and most people know Napa. The wines are still going to sell. That’s why a lot of people didn’t dump.
Z: And there’s too much money at stake. In a lot of ways, it was a real privilege if you could afford to dump your 2020 vintage. Even for those people who dumped, I’m not convinced that they’re not figuring out something else. Not all that wine went down the drain or went to the grape market for bulk juice. There might be a lot of private-label, smoke-tainted wine out there, though. That actually might be the worst place to drink wine from 2020. I would be very dubious about private label California wine from 2020.
A: This is interesting. When the 2020s come out, I’m very interested to try them.
Z: Yeah. And I want to hear from you if you are a producer or something. I’d be curious to know if you have concerns about this, or what you’ve done to try and assuage those concerns for your distribution partners, buyers, wine club members, et cetera. I think that, even if you’re right, Adam, that not very many people have those concerns; the people who do have them are some of the most important people to these wineries. They’re the ones who are controlling a lot of the decisions to buy or not buy. If you’re the purchaser for a large distribution company and you’re making a call on whether to buy 10,000 cases from a winery, that makes a big difference to that winery most of the time.
A: Totally. Very interesting conversation. Joanna, enjoy Canada. Zach, enjoy child No. 2, and I’ll talk to you later.
J: Bye, guys.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout- out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.