What Do the Wine Country Fires Mean for Napa and Sonoma Wine?


6 minute Read

By all accounts among vintners in Napa and Sonoma, the 2017 vintage was progressing well. Conditions were hotter and drier than typical, but many producers picked early in order to manage potential alcohol levels. Then, in the late night hours of Sunday, October 8, the wildfires sparked.

Over the time span of over a week, 15 large fires wreaked devastation across Northern California, causing dozens of fatalities, massive evacuations, and widespread damage to homes, businesses, and wineries. The largest of these fires, the Atlas Peak fire and the Tubbs fire, threatened the heart of Napa’s and Sonoma’s wine-growing areas, causing entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, Sonoma’s central city, to be decimated, and forcing a mandatory evacuation of Napa’s famed Calistoga. Mendocino, too, was hard hit by the more northerly Redwood Valley fire. For many residents and vintners, the damage remains to be fully assessed at this point.

While the immediate focus is on helping the people affected in California wine country, many can’t help but wonder: What does this mean for Napa and Sonoma wine? While it might seem to be a selfish inquiry, it’s also important to explore, as the wine industry is the largest employer of Napa and Sonoma residents. With several top wineries destroyed and many more damaged, will the wine country wildfires have a drastic effect on California’s top wine regions?

Ironically, the hot vintage ended up being somewhat of a blessing for Napa and Sonoma vintners. As conditions made earlier picking necessary, most Napa and Sonoma grapes were harvested and safely in tank or barrel before the wildfires hit. Most of what was left on vines were late-ripening Bordeaux varieties, like Napa’s hallmark Cabernet Sauvignon.

The concern for these unharvested grapes is not fire, as many vineyards were left unsinged, but smoke. Smoke particles sit on the skins of grapes and can taint the flavor of the juice if vinified normally. On returning to their vineyards, winemakers will perform chemical analyses on grape clusters to determine just how bad the smoke taint is.

“Modern technology has given us tools that we can use to soften this impact, but it will not completely fix the problem,” says Greg Kitchens, Napa native and director of winemaking for Don Sebastiani & Sons, whose properties in both Napa and Sonoma were fortunately spared. Filtration or direct pressing methods could help minimize the impact of smoke, but it’s more likely that winemakers will choose not to vinify smoke-tainted grapes at all, particularly for higher-end cuvées.

Kitchens also notes that some fruit left in Napa and Sonoma vineyards may not be affected by smoke at all. And while it’s unfortunate that Napa’s signature, high-priced variety comprises most of what was unharvested, it may have a fighting chance.

“Grapevine cultivars vary in their sensitivity to smoke,” Remi Cohen, vice president and general manager of Lede Family Wines, noted in a press statement. “Cabernet Sauvignon, which as a later variety is the main variety left out there, is less sensitive than most other varieties.” Only 3 percent of Lede Family Wines’ harvest was incomplete prior to the wildfires, and while fires neared the Cliff Lede Vineyards’ Stags Leap District property in Napa, it emerged unscathed.

But as air quality warnings and photos of hazy vineyards indicate, smoke can permeate beyond the vineyards. Some wonder if smoke effect from nearby wildfires will taint fermenting or aging wines, lowering the quality not only of the 2017 vintage, but of previous years’ wines as well. Those concerned can rest assured that their worries are for naught.

“You will not see any impact in wines that were already in tank or barrel prior to the fires,” Kitchens says. The reason? Science.

“Even if smoke gets inside the winery, the fermentations create CO2,” Adam Mariani, co-owner of Scribe Winery along with his brother Andrew. “This creates a blanket, a shield over the wine, keeping both oxygen and smoke away.” Despite mandatory evacuation orders in place for their Sonoma property, both Mariani brothers chose to remain at the winery, as did many other neighboring producers, to work alongside Cal Fire crews as flames licked at nearby mountains. While much of Scribe’s ranch burned, all buildings and vineyards were spared.

After fermentation is complete, winemakers can simply close their tanks with airtight seals. Barrels, too, have an almost-perfect seal against both oxygen and smoke, protecting aging wines from previous vintages from being affected by wildfire conditions. While power outages throughout much of Sonoma and Napa made it difficult for vintners to control some winery processes like fermentation temperature, for the most part, this problem will be manageable.

“Winemakers have been seasoned in this trade for the ability to deal with any agricultural or environmental curveballs,” Kitchens says. “This is just another bump in the road.”

Much has been postulated about vineyards’ ability to help prevent wildfires from spreading after witnessing ashen, fire-swept land surrounding green, unscathed vineyards, some saying that vines hold too much moisture to burn. Vineyards that remain undamaged by fire should have no long-term side effects.

“There is no empirical evidence or historic data indicating that smoke would negatively impact future vintages,” Cohen says.

On the other hand, if a vineyard has been burned or damaged to the point that no healthy tissue is left, the vines must be replanted. This is certainly a setback to a winery, as newly planted vines will not bear fruit for three to five years and the young fruit will likely be of lesser quality. In the meantime, a winery could source fruit from other estate-owned vineyards or purchase grapes from another property, though either solution would almost certainly result in an increase to the cost of the wine.

In the end, wine lovers need not worry about the wine country wildfires’ effects on the quality of current and future vintages of Napa and Sonoma wine. These areas are not in danger of losing their status among the world’s leading wine regions, nor are their wines unworthy of being sought out in the future.

“A majority of our 2017 wine is going to be very good quality,” Kitchens says. “Only a small portion will be compromised and might not even make it to the bottle for these higher-end Napa and Sonoma bottlings.”

Prices may be slightly higher for top wines in the 2017 vintage, but the expense is well worth the benefit that it provides to the wildfire-afflicted communities.

“In Sonoma and Napa, the wine industry is by far the biggest industry and employer of those who are suffering,” Mariani says. “As long as the agricultural industry can get back on its feet, it will help the community as a whole.”

Tourism, another huge industry in both Napa and Sonoma, will also help the areas recover.

“Come visit! Plan a trip for 2018!” Katie Bundschu, vice president of marketing for Gundlach Bundschu Winery, says. “Once power is back up and running, we will welcome everyone back with open arms.” Sonoma-based “Gun Bun,” as it is affectionately known, was originally reported as burned to the ground by news outlets. While the family home on the property was sadly destroyed, all other structures and vineyards on the property were unharmed.

In addition to giving to organizations focused on long-term wildfire relief, like Rebuild Wine Country and North Bay Fire Relief Fund, buying Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino wine is the best way to support victims of the wine country wildfires. Knowing the reputations that these regions hold, it certainly won’t be a hardship to drink a bottle or two in their honor.

Five Napa and Sonoma Bottles to Drink

Cliff Lede Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2016

While Cliff Lede Vineyards was fortunately spared, some of its employees’ and neighbors’ homes were not, leading the winery to donate 5 percent of all wine sales from the next month to relief efforts. This ripe Sauvignon Blanc-based blend screams Napa, combining both richness and zip.

Scribe Estate Chardonnay 2014

The vineyard in which Adam and Andrew gathered as wildfires raged around their property produces this Estate Chardonnay, an unoaked, mineral-driven style of wine.

Paradise Ridge Chardonnay 2014

Based in Santa Rosa, Paradise Ridge Winery was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, losing its winery in the flames. The estate vineyards and tasting room in Kenwood survived, though, and those who sip on this balanced Chardonnay will play a small part in their rebuilding.

Gundlach Bundschu Estate Gewürztraminer 2016

This historic Sonoma winery very nearly succumbed to the California wildfires, crediting Cal Fire and other first responders for protecting their property. Katie Bundschu’s great-great-great-grandfather first planted Gewürztraminer on the property in 1858, and the winery is known for its dry style of the wine.

Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

This Stags Leap District Winery was burned to the ground in the Atlas Peak fire, but proprietor Ray Signorello plans to rebuild. Sales from this signature Cabernet Sauvignon will go a long way toward helping him do so, and keep an eye out for future bottles from the 2016 and 2017 vintages, which survived in a separate building.

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