For those of us not living on the West Coast, the fires enveloping wine regions in California, Oregon and Washington are frightening to watch on TV. Not only have the widespread fires led to a loss of life, but a lot of buildings and livelihoods have been destroyed.
Some WINE WEDNESDAY columns are appearing late, due to the publisher’s illness. He made the decision to post them late and more frequently, to catch up with the authors. This one was intended for Sept. 23, 2020:
The impact of these deadly fires on the wine industry is still unknown – or, more likely, untold. We had difficulty finding winemakers willing or able to talk to us. However, a recent statement from the California Wine Institute said that although the situation remains fluid, to date the impact of the fires is minimal. Only a couple of the 4,200 wineries have suffered extensive damage.
Although that’s encouraging, it isn’t the whole story in regards to what kind of wine we can expect from the 2020 harvest. The real question is whether the grapes have suffered smoke taint – and to what extent.
Wildfire smoke releases compounds called volatile phenols that attach to the grape’s sugar to form glycosides. Oftentimes, the wet ashtray flavor of tainted grapes doesn’t manifest itself until fermentation. That leaves the winemaker in a quandary and many expected to either demote the juice to bulk wines or simply dump them. No one wants to make a wine so damaged that it will ruin their reputation. We’ve even seen a suggestion that some may make rosé out of their cabernet (rosé spends little time on the skins). Maybe we’ll see more white pinot noir, too.
There are several things to consider.
First, vineyards in general are a natural firebreak. Approaching fires may burn a couple of rows of vines but then stop. Green grapes and leaves just aren’t an accelerant like dried brush. Even vines burned by fire can recover and produce grapes the next year.
Second, some of the white grapes – depending on location – were already harvested by the time the fires approached. In 2017, the wild fires came in November when 90 percent of the crop was already picked. This year harvest was running about two weeks late in regions like Monterey County, so most of the grapes are still on the vine. Pickers were allowed back into the evacuation areas to pick grapes on an emergency basis, but many of them had evacuated to addresses unknown.
Third, the extent of smoke taint depends on the grape variety. Chardonnay, for instance, spends little time on the skins after the crush, so smoke taint is minimized. However, cabernet sauvignon is one of the last grapes normally picked and it stays on the grape skins for a couple of days during fermentation to provide color and complexity. Thus, whatever smoke is on the skin will likely pass to the wine. The same goes for pinot noir, a delicate grape variety that is prone to disease and now smoke.
The vulnerability of certain grapes is particularly threatening to areas such as the Willamette Valley in Oregon and Santa Lucia Highlands in California that are focused on pinot noir.
How does a grape grower know if his grapes have smoke taint? He sends them to a licensed lab. Unfortunately, the labs have been hammered and grape growers are being told not to expect results for a month.
Many winemakers are saying the grapes are not ripe enough to pick and they hope rain will wash off the taint before the grapes are harvested. But in the middle of all of this, they have to determine when the grapes have hit peak maturity and then find the pickers to harvest them. The haze hanging over much of the wine region may spell them relief from the sun.
In a year wracked by high temperatures and a COVID-19 virus that locked down tasting rooms, this is the last thing winemakers needed. Although many growers have crop insurance, it doesn’t cover other costs, including debt payments and personnel. Many growers have long-term contracts with producers who will have a problem rejecting the grapes if lab results show no taint.
But wine producers and their growers are resilient and have faced fires before, although not to this extent. They are surprisingly optimistic. And, we should be too.
Over the past two decades, we have turned to Marietta Cellars for a dependable wine that never fails to please. In particular, its legendary Old Vine Red blend, first released in 1982, rewards the palate with a burst of flavor.
Winemaker Chris Bilbro never gave up his recipe, other than that the wine was based predominantly on zinfandel. It is a blend sometimes released twice a year – hence, instead of being designated by a particular year, it is labeled with a lot number. We first started drinking Old Vines at Lot 9. Today, it is on lot 70. For $15, it’s a great value
We sat with Bilbro on a number of occasions. Alas, he died last year and his son Scot carries on his legacy. Scot recently entered in a long-term distribution agreement with VINTUS.
Marietta Cellars has vineyard sources in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
We were also impressed with the 2017 Marietta Christo ($24), a Rhone grape variety blend that overdelivers. It is composed of syrah, grenache petite sirah and viognier from the North Coast. Lots of fresh cherry flavors with black pepper and licorice notes.
- St. Supery Virtu 2018 ($32). With 54 percent of this wine made from semillon, it is unique. We loved it for its exotic grapefruit and citrus flavors.
- Ram’s Gate Carneros Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($38). This estate sauvignon blanc takes the grape variety to a higher level with a rich texture and even some complexity, thanks to the time it spends in oak barrels and the partial musque clone that adds dimension. Grapefruit, lemon grass and a bit of apricot highlight this expressive and delicious sauvignon blanc.
- Las Moradas de San Martin Senda Garnacha 2016. ($13). It’s been a long time since we’ve found such a great wine value. We thought it was a $40-50 wine when we tasted this gem from Madrid and was happy to see it going for significantly less. Great grip and depth with violet aroma and plum flavor with a hint of mineral, spice and vanilla. Very long finish. You may have to order it online.
- Angela Vineyards Yamill-Carlton Pinot Noir 2017 ($38). Fresh red cherry and cranberry flavors with a dash of baking spice.
Generic photos are selected by ThePhillyFiles and don’t indicate any preference.
Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.