By Jonathan Cristaldi
On Monday, August 24, Food & Wine digital published “Everything We Know About the California Fires and What They Mean for Wineries,” a piece that I worked on over the better part of four days. As of this writing, the fires have burned more than 1.5 million acres in California, five people have died in Napa and Solano Counties, many have lost their homes, businesses, and while northern California continues battling issues with smoke, Santa Cruz wine country has been hit the hardest.
Over the coming weeks, you’re going to see more stories emerge in local and national press outlets—some heartwarming, some deeply saddening. I want to take this moment to speak directly to Napa Valley Wine Academy readers. I encourage you to read my article and to read as many articles as you can about the fires, and to look for opportunities to help those who are in need—not just the wineries that are being impacted but the farmworkers, and all the people who work outdoors and are harvesting fruit even when the air quality is considered “hazardous.”
But I also want to encourage you to make a mental bookmark because when the 2020 vintage of red and white wines hit the market—just as other fire-season vintages have like the 2017 Cabernets in the market now, moving into 2018s for many wineries in California—I want you to remember a few things and to let your knowledge be the guiding light of education for the rest of the world.
First, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the 2020 vintage is ruined for every single winery in California. It’s true that the 2020 fires are earlier in the growing season than the 2017 fires, which occurred later in October when most grapes were harvested, and wine was safely in sealed tanks. But if any 2020 grapes are truly impacted by smoke, and it shows as the wine is in the initial stage of production, it’s not going to be bottled. Will there be exceptions? Aren’t there always? But it’s certainly not worth the risk for most small and large producers, who will deal with serious backlash from their distributor partners and customers.
For those of you who are category experts on Napa or Sonoma or have taken deep dives into the sub-appellations of those regions, you know that in cases of fires, heat-spikes, rain or hail events, whether grapes remain healthy depends upon exactly where the vineyard is, how far along in the growing season the grapes are, and what the conditions are of that vineyard throughout the duration of the weather event.
Suffice it to say, it’s too early to tell, except in obvious cases where vineyards have either burned or are on the edge of the fire line. A lot of lab analyst work will have to be done for vintners whose vines are in areas where the smoke is settling and not moving much. So keep an open mind and do your due diligence—some wineries may even purchase grapes from regions that were not impacted by smoke or fires so that they don’t miss out on a vintage. In cases like that, you never know, it could be an exceptionally cool one-off bottling.
Here are two resources for helping farm-workers that I’ve learned about recently:
Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation has launched the COVID-19 Farmworker Resiliency Fund.
A group of wine country public relations professionals are doing their part with the 2020 Wine Country Fire Relief Fund.
And here’s the intro to my piece on Food & Wine:
California is in the midst of another “unimaginable” repeat of the fires that swept through Napa and Sonoma three years ago in late 2017 and 2019. The latest fires first broke out at 8:58 a.m. on Monday, August 17, in the eastern hills above Napa after a lightning strike ignited a blaze north of Lake Hennessey. By 4:32 p.m., that fire had grown to 2,400 acres, and unfavorable conditions were making things worse. By nightfall, residents in the remote areas around the lake had to evacuate, and one winery was already being threatened: the historic Nichelini Winery on Sage Canyon Road. But the fire did not prevail —CalFire crews successfully held the fires back, even though flames came within feet of the winery.