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The wildfires will make us stronger, says Napa winemaker

“We will come out better than ever,” said Napa-based winemaker Chris Carpenter as he works to save the “great” 2017 vintage in the wake of the Californian wildfires.

Vineyards on the slopes of Mount Veeder, with the wildfires raging beyond. Photographed by Jackson Family Wines on Sunday 8 October

During an interview the drinks business yesterday, Carpenter, who makes wine for the Jackson family’s flagship Napa brands – Lokoya, Cardinale, La Jota and Mt Brave – spoke frankly and rousingly about his approach to the “chaos” caused by wildfires that have been raging in California for the past 10 days, and even expressed his belief that the natural disaster will strengthen the region in the long term.

“One has a feeling of inadequacy when you see all these men and women coming in here and battling fires from the front line; you have this feeling, ‘I should be out there’,” he began.

However, despite such an urge, he then said that it was more important that his skills were directed towards saving the vintage.

“But fire-fighting is not what I’m trained to do, what I do is make wine, and my vineyard guys are trained to pick grapes, and ultimately the economic strength of this valley depends on that, so that’s what we did, that was our contribution; our contribution is to make the wine that makes this valley great,” he said.

Indeed, Carpenter confirmed, as previously reported by db, that this year’s fruit has the potential to produce wines of very high quality.

“2017 was shaping up to be a great vintage – we brought in about half the grapes prior to the fires, and the stuff we have brought in is tasting really good,” he said, stressing that he was very lucky to have a generator to keep the winery running “while the chaos happened around us”.

He also said that he started picking again in Jackson family properties in Napa from Thursday last week, once it was deemed safe for people to harvest the grapes.

Chris Carpenter: “What has kept me going is focusing on the normal – I’ve been doing pump overs every day, and making sure the ferments are ok”

This fruit too “is tasting really good,” he said, before commenting, “But what we don’t know is what level of smoke taint we may or may not have.”

Continuing he said, “It’s a wait and see thing, but we don’t have to wait a year and a half to see it; you can detect if there’s smoke taint in there after the ferments.”

Then he said, highlighting his determination, “Who knows if we’ll have it, but we are still going at it.”

Carpenter also commented on how fortunate Jackson Family Wines has been, with, so far, no human losses or confirmed damage to its wineries or vineyards.

However, he said that the group’s Mount Veeder vineyard might have been affected. “The only vineyard we don’t have access to is on Mt Veeder, where we have about 75 tonnes left to pick.”

When asked more generally about the mood in Napa at the moment, he spoke of a sense of “resilience”, commenting that the community was “coming together”, while recording that the region has previously suffered natural disasters, and has even been strengthened by setbacks.

“We had the earthquake in Napa in 2014 and we dealt with that, and we came out better than ever, and it will be the same with the wildfires, we are focused on getting through the harvest and, again, we will come out better than ever,” he said.

Speaking further to db about his own reaction to the situation, he recorded the distressing combination of looking after his family and colleagues, while trying to do his job as a winemaker.

“I have been making sure that my that my family as well as my employees and their families are safe, and trying to maintain the wines, but what has kept me going is focusing on the normal – I’ve been doing pump overs every day, and making sure the ferments are ok, and I, and my team, have been focused on that,” he said.

“Focusing on what we do has helped me get through it: we are not fireman or the people who have saved the valley, but we are workers, and our economy and the strength of this valley resides on that – our guys have contributed to the health of this valley long-term, and, maintaining a sense of normality during this crazy last week was our contribution,” he added, reiterating his earlier sentiment.

“Our contribution is to make the wine that makes this valley great,” Chris Carpenter told The Drinks Business

Looking back to the start of the wildfires on 8 October, he said that his team had opted to keep working despite advice to the contrary.

“The fire began late Sunday night and early Monday morning all my staff arrived, but nobody knew the extent of the fires, or the rate they were moving,” he began.

“We had no electricity, but we had a generator, and we got the fruit in and kept the winery operating, and then we went home,” he recalled.

“The next day all my staff showed up again, and, after making sure that everyone and their families were safe, I then asked them, ‘Do you want to work?’. No-one wanted to go home, they all wanted to keep busy, they wanted to keep doing what they were supposed to do – and that was best for us as a team,” he stated.

Speaking in London at the start of this month, just before the wildfires struck Napa as well as Sonoma and Mendocino, Pierre Seillan – who is the winemaker for Sonoma’s Vérité brand – said that this year’s vintage in California will rate as one of the greatest of the past 20 years.

With, it is reputed, around 85% of Napa and Sonoma fruit harvested before the fires began, it is still believed that these regions should be able to produce an excellent vintage.

However, despite harvesting healthy berries, the combination of staff evacuations and power cuts may result in wine losses – without labour or electricity, wineries won’t have been able to manage fermentation temperatures, pump overs, or press the grapes.

Consequently, estimates picked up by db suggest that 25-30% of this year’s vintage in Napa and Sonoma may have been spoiled, and that’s before the effect of the smoke on the wine has been ascertained.

While the primary concern is of course the safety of these regions’ residents, Carpenter’s point is a powerful one – for the long-term welfare of the community, those winemakers who can produce a vintage must do all they can to preserve the inherent quality in 2017’s grapes.

So, let us all hope they manage to do exactly that.

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