Fire & Smoke Impacts on California Vineyards—Is there a Brighter Side?
Here in California, we have wonderful weather and fabulous wine grapes. But as with any good, we also get the bad. We have to deal with earthquakes and lots of fires! In this article, I’ll discuss the fire and smoke impacts on wineries, vineyards, and ultimately our wines. So far this year, the major wine regions have been spared, but as of August 20, 56 fires are now burning in other regions in California including the Caldor, Dixie and Cache fires, with close to 1,000 homes burned thus far.
Fires are an unfortunate way of life here in the west, and we are in another serious drought season, which will lead to more fires and less water to fight the fires.
The Glass Fire in September to October 2020 was the fourth major fire in three years in the Napa wine country. By October 6, the Glass fire in September scorched over 73 square miles and destroyed about 95 structures. The photo above shows firefighters attempting to battle the blaze at Chateau Boswell.
Moving past the horrible human and animal impact of fires, we can discuss the effects on the wine industry.
Fires don’t usually directly affect vineyards. Vineyards are normally irrigated during our hot summer and fall months, and the grapes are full of water, but they are surrounded by natural forests and hills which are dry and incredibly vulnerable to fire. Vineyards are helpless to defend when fires jump, which happens when wind carries burning material beyond the main fire, igniting spot fires.
The image to the left shows the green vineyards surrounded by burned trees and buildings.
Wineries burn, and a lot of wine being aged and stored in the wineries and warehouses has been lost over the past several years.
The damage to vineyards is usually not from the flames, but from the smoke residue that falls down onto the grapes.
“Smoke can drastically affect the quality of wine made from affected grapes. It is called smoke taint and does drastically affect the quality of wine. There has been so much smoke taint, that many wineries have decided not to make a 2020 vintage.” Lewis Perdue, publisher and executive editor of Wine Industry Insight.
Fire and smoke are part of nature. A natural fire wouldn’t be too bad: the smoke would just be carbon, and while it would affect the taste of the grapes, it wouldn’t really contaminate the grapes and vineyard. But, today’s fires have burning buildings, homes, cars, metals: nasty chemicals, raising concerns about heavy metals—from chromium to arsenic in pressure-treated wood to asbestos—that is difficult to wash off the grapes and works its way inside the grape skins. In the long term, those chemicals work their way into the soil for lasting effects.
The Napa region suffered two fires in 2020. The wildfires started when only 10-15% of the grapes had been harvested, while most grapes were still on the vine. Vineyards under smoke plumes were tainted by smoke, and many vineyards chose not to pick grapes last year. Although many wineries chose not to release exact numbers, perhaps only 20% of the Napa crop was bottled.
“We have clients that didn’t vinify any grapes this year, but none have made that public knowledge, mostly out of respect for those who are giving this year their best shot.” Consulting winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown.
Some wineries chose to bottle their wines, using filtration and reverse osmosis to minimize (but not eliminate) the taint and sell them for bargain prices under cute names like “Old Smokey,” or using phrases like, “the smokey aroma will dissipate quickly, leaving you with a wonderful finish.”
The end result of the 2020 fires was a huge financial impact on the wineries, as well as other vegetable and fruit (and even Cannabis) producers in California. (Question: Why does smoke affect a product that is … ummm … SMOKED?)
On the Brighter Side
“A lifelong Californian, the word ‘wildfire’ could be synonymous with ‘renewal’.” Bob Knebel, President and CEO of Rombauer Vineyard.
Everything burned by wildfires will turn into ashen fertilizer, which will lead to a beautiful green spring, and the 2022 vintage begins anew. I hope we have a better, fire-free summer and fall!
– Kevin Donnelly, President & Home Winemaker