Californian wildfires: the real impact on wine

 As the wildfires that ravaged large parts of California during the past 10 days begin to die down, we consider the real impact on the wine industry in the immediate future and longer term.

While a focus on charred vineyards and spoiled wine may seem inconsequential when 41 lives have been lost in the fires that swept through California since Sunday 8 October, it is the wine industry and wine-related tourism that supports the livelihoods of those who reside in the areas struck hardest by the disaster: Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties.

Indeed, whole communities across these regions are almost entirely dependent on the production of wine, and the visitors it brings.

As a result, the immediate focus of this report is on the health of the 2017 vintage, which, as previously reported by the drinks business, had been declared a great year before the fires started.

Although figures vary region to region, overall, it is estimated that around 85% of the fruit in Napa and Sonoma had been picked by the time the flames began to spread – with Napa and Sonoma suggesting as much as 90% of the bunches had been harvested, and, in the cooler Mendocino, around 75% of the red grapes, but most of the whites.

Unfortunately, however, the grapes that had not been harvested before the wildfires began were mostly “high-end” fruit, according to wine merchant Doug House of Chain Bridge Cellars – mentioning in particular the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and old-vine Zinfandel.

Although not based in California, House has provided db with a comprehensive report on the impact of the fires, in which he also notes that, “Anything on Atlas Peak, the middle of Mt. Veeder, the hills immediately above Calistoga and around Santa Rosa in Sonoma is ruined because of dehydration from the heat.”

Indeed, Chris Carpenter, who is the winemaker for Jackson family’s flagship Napa brands – Lokoya, Cardinale, La Jota and Mt Brave – told db earlier this week that he still didn’t have access to the group’s prized Mt Veeder vineyards, where 75 tonnes worth of bunches are still on the vines.

Elsewhere in Napa, however, his team were able to go back and pick what was left on the vines from Thursday last week, and, in Carpenter’s own words, this post-wildfire harvest has produced “fruit that is tasting really good”.

But Carpenter was fortunate. House adds that many vineyards were in evacuation areas and even those that weren’t struggled to harvest the grapes last week due to labour shortages, along with health concerns of allowing workers into areas affected by smoke.

Consequently, he records, “There’s a fair bit of fruit that should have come in Monday-Wednesday that’s still on the vines and is probably now at least somewhat raisined”.

As for those grapes that were picked after the fires began, the concern now is smoke taint in the resulting wines. House notes that the weather patterns in 2017 favoured the production of thick-skinned berries, which may help protect against spoilage, pointing out that the smoke particles have to get inside the skins to become a problem.

Furthermore, much of the fruit that was still on the vine was the naturally thick-skinned Cabernat Sauvignon.

Nevertheless, it’s too early to tell the extent of the smoke-taint issue, with Carpenter telling db that it is not until after fermentations are complete that smoke taint detection is possible – although, thankfully, one doesn’t have to wait longer than that.

As for those grapes picked before Sunday 8 when the fires began, vintners believe that smoke in the winery won’t cause taint or other issues with wine already in barrels or tanks.

While it seems as though the vintage should be largely saved, the wildfires brought further problems for vintners – primarily due to power and labour shortages.

House records, “Many wineries were without power for days while they had wine in fermenters, so, during that time they couldn’t control temperatures, they couldn’t pump over, press, or move wine around the winery except by gravity flow.”

He continues, “This means there will be a fair bit of loss in the wineries – up to 25-30% is one estimate thrown around.”

Furthermore, he recalls that even those wineries with power during the fires often had to limit the number of hours per day they allowed staff to work on-site – the smoke was just too intense and presented a health risk.

So, while as much as 90% of the grapes from the “excellent” 2017 vintage may have made it to the winery, almost one third of the wine produced from those bunches may have been lost due to power and staff shortages – and an unknown quantity may also have been spoiled due to smoke taint, although the latter impact is believed to be minimal.

And what of the long-term implications of the wildfires for the wine industry in California?

According to House, the fires probably did fairly modest damage to the vineyards overall.

He writes, “Grape vines are pretty hardy, and even in places where fire burned through the vineyard, the fire was mainly limited to the grass growing between rows.  There’s some chance that next year’s buds were damaged here and there, and that could limit yields in 2018, but right now we anticipate minimal long-term damage.”

However, he identifies a different but worrying issue for the wine industry in the long term as a result of the wildfires. And this concerns worker housing.

With around 5,700 houses and structures destroyed by the fires, and countless more damaged, it is believed that many properties used to house vineyard workers have been lost.

“We know that multiple trailer parks burned, and those were among the places that vineyard and winery workers could afford to live in what is an extremely expensive place,” records House.

He also suggests that many of the damaged or destroyed 1950s and 1960s bungalows in Santa Rosa and other Sonoma towns were rental properties that housed vineyard and winery workers, and, he says, “I’d love to believe it will be rebuilt for the same use, but given an empty lot and an insurance cheque, I fear much of the rebuilding will be a bit more upscale than that – and then were will all the workers live?

It’s an issue also raised this week in the New York Times, which writes that around 100,000 people were displaced, temporarily or permanently by the fires.

As the paper notes: It is still too early to know how many of them were immigrants, who are in the most precarious position of any group. Because many of them are in the country illegally, they are ineligible for most disaster aid, raising concerns that those without places to live will move to other regions where housing is more plentiful and cheaper.

According to the same article, immigrants make up a majority of the 55,000 people employed by the wine industry in northern California and are also ubiquitous in the kitchens of restaurants and resorts that make the region a magnet for affluent tourists.

And, quoting Cameron Mauritson, who grows grapes on 350 acres in Sonoma County for 60 wineries, these immigrant workers are vital for the wine industry to function.

Losing them, he said, would be “catastrophic to our economy.”

The impact of the wildfires in brief

• Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Solano and Lake Counties were all affected by wildfires that began on Sunday evening, 8 October.

• Across the North Coast region, 41 lives were lost, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and the natural landscape of the area’s forests and hillsides will take years to recover.

• In the Napa Valley, direct damage from the fires was reported by 47 member wineries.

• As previously reported by the drinks business, among the wineries known to have been most severely affected are Signorello in Napa, Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Paras Vineyards in Napa, Mount Veeder.

• Of the approximately 1,200 wineries in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, the regions most impacted, it is reported that fewer than ten have been destroyed or heavily damaged. 

• The fires burned predominantly in the forested hillsides. The famous Napa Valley floor, located between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, saw little to no impact from the fires.

• The greater challenge, affecting the entire Napa Valley, is that most wineries and visitor-serving businesses have been closed during what is normally one of the busiest times of the year. This was due to the focus on public safety, putting out the fires, power outages, road closures, communications challenges and the inability for evacuated employees to report to work.

• It is estimated that around 85% of the fruit in Napa and Sonoma had been picked by the time the flames began to spread – with Napa and Sonoma suggesting as much as 90% of the bunches had been harvested, and, in the cooler Mendocino, around 75% of the red grapes, but most of the whites.

• However, it is believed that as much as 25-30% of the this year’s harvest in Napa and Sonoma may have been lost due to power and labour shortages in the wineries.

• On a more positive note, wine inventories from previous vintages were generally unharmed and these losses are minimal, according to Napa Valley Vintners.

• And, even if there are some losses for the 2017 vintage, there will be virtually no impact on the greater volume of California wine industry, with Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma representing just 12% of overall California wine production.

• Finally, those interested in contributing to community relief and rebuilding efforts can click here for ways to help.

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One Response to “Californian wildfires: the real impact on wine”

  1. Regina M Lutz says:

    Just wondering why DB would publish comments — and statistics — about such an important subject as the effect of the Northern California wildfires on the 2017 vintage attributed to comments from someone, who, as far as I can tell, is not a winemaker from the region, nor does he own vineyard. Doug House owns a wine retail shop in Virginia so, unless I’m missing something here, it doesn’t seem to me that he’d be a knowledgeable source for information about the current state of vineyards and wineries in Napa and Sonoma.

    Just sayin’……

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