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Fires, wineries, and you

The break between vineyards lost and vineyards destroyed by the Glass Fire. These grapes were about to be harvested when the fire struck.

 

By now you’ve likely seen coverage of California’s record-breaking annual fires. There is a significant amount of news about how devastating this is for the region at large and it’s reasonable for you to wonder how or why these catastrophes affect the broader region beyond the short-term. How does this impact the supply chain, and more specifically, you? What is smoke taint? 


I’m currently writing this from our HQ in Palo Alto, roughly 80 miles from the Glass Fire raging in Napa and Sonoma at this very moment. The sky is grey from smoke and raining ash. I grew up in the Bay Area so this feels very personal. When I worked for a distributor selling wine in New York, hosting winemakers in the market felt like hosting celebrities thanks to how admired they were. Their craft is a fascinating intersection of science and art; a craft that few brains are wired to master as it requires the synchronicity of both left and right brain. My experiences with them motivated me to work a harvest in Sonoma to learn how to make wine and develop a deeper understanding of this industry and its agricultural foundation. Those few months in 2013 provided me with some of the fondest memories of my life and I still maintain that winemakers are my favorite people in the wine business.


To name a few, the wineries at Cain, Newton, Behrens, and Sherwin on Spring Mountain all suffered devastating damage in just the last few days. The famed Castello di Amorosa winery in Napa has a severely burned farmhouse building that housed offices and wine storage. So far they estimate the loss of wine at Castello di Amorosa alone at about 120,000 bottles-- a valuation of roughly $5 million.


Fortunately, there are plenty of vines that don’t burn. Napa and Sonoma’s fires are so regular and widespread that individual wineries have made their own significant investments via fire prevention efforts (clearing brush and establishing fire breaks to slow the spread of burning fires) and small fire departments. With more than 950 wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties combined, the destruction of 20 wineries and their vineyards would translate to 2% of the total number of wineries in the region. However, the fires cause toxic smoke that spreads for miles. Even if grapes aren’t directly touched by fire, enough smoke taint can leave thousands of tons of grapes unusable. 

 

Vines below the charred hillside appear to be spared
but smoke taint will claim these due to their proximity to the fire

 

“Smoke taint” is the term used by the industry to classify fire damage to a vineyard that may not have been in the direct path of a fire. The small smoke particles and ash from a fire travel for miles through the air, ultimately landing on and covering whatever is in their path. In this case, that includes some incredibly precious and valuable vineyards. Once they come to rest on a grape, absorption through the permeable grape skin begins. Enough absorption results in permanently damaged and unusable grapes. The catch is that the taint usually isn’t detectable until after fermentation… after you’ve already paid for the grapes, gone through the labor of picking, and patiently guided the fermentation process. 

 

A charred vine in Sonoma. Wineries in the region will spend millions
pulling up and replanting over the next several years.

 

With enough warning and awareness, growers and vintners can send (pre-harvest) grape samples out to labs to test for 4-methylguaiacol. This is the detectable compound from smoke that presents in grapes affected by ash. If it isn’t caught before harvesting, it typically isn’t detectable again until after fermentation or once the finished wine is in-bottle. I’ve had wine from fire years in the past and at minimal levels I’ve noticed the effect of smoke in a way that actually tasted good. At higher levels, the wine tastes distinctly like a used ashtray. It’s better for the consumer’s health and impression of the brand for wineries to catch this early and simply abandon the crop. It’s also far more cost-effective even though it still results in an enormous loss. No grapes = no wine = no income for the wineries. 


Employment in the wine industry is somewhat segmented. In wine-producing regions like Napa and Sonoma, much of the workforce is comprised of hourly laborers- the demand for which rises and falls with the seasons. In autumn, when wineries are harvesting the fruit of the past 9 months of labor, pickers work long, intense schedules for a couple of months. 12-hour days are regular and it isn’t uncommon for winemaking teams to have 24-hour shifts at times during a particularly critical period. Most of the work is heavy, physical labor. Having worked a harvest myself, I can attest to this with proof from the 10 lbs I unintentionally lost over a 2-month period.


A lot of those folks rely on the higher income from a busy harvest to tide them over through winter, which is a quieter season for most of the agriculture industry and a more difficult period in which to make money. If smoke taint means that wineries can’t use and can’t pick their grapes, the need for those hourly laborers evaporates. A loss of jobs has a trickle-down effect in the economy and in the wine industry’s case, a lack of product means a reduced need and less money to pay for salespeople, logistics roles, tasting room hosts, the list goes on. During fires like this one, tourism halts and hospitality comes to a standstill, along with the income for many of the associated jobs.


In 2015 alone, California’s wine industry contributed $57.6 billion and 325,000 equivalent full-time jobs to the state’s economy. Those numbers don’t include jobs generated in other states by California’s wine production (distributors, salespeople, researchers, manufacturers, and journalists, just to name a few). 


Many small wineries don’t own vineyards, instead holding contracts with growers who manage them year-round, sometimes across generations. Similar to the craft beer boom, a “craft winery” uptick has occurred in recent years as custom crush facilities providing the machinery and winemaking facilities for rent have multiplied and become more widely accessible. This means that winemakers don’t have to be limited to the expensive real estate in Napa and Sonoma, which is convenient for them and provides more affordable wine for you. Instead they can buy grapes from their desired appellations and truck them to wherever their winemaking or custom crush facility is. 


Bret Hogan, owner and winemaker of Cote West Winery, won’t be getting his Chardonnay this year. Four days before he was scheduled to harvest his grapes, the vineyard owner was forced to cancel their contract due to toxic levels of smoke taint. The insurance policy of many vineyard owners allows for up to 1ppb (that’s part per BILLION) of 4-methylguaiacol in grapes affected by smoke taint. Bret’s tested at 1.1ppb. 


Winery owners construct their businesses around projected volume production. They buy equipment and materials based on how much wine they plan to make. Overhead expenses for a winery are tremendous and the loss of even a quarter of annual production can be devastating to their bottom line. In the 2020 vintage, the proportion lost could end up being far higher than one quarter. 


With the Glass Fire still active, it’s difficult to estimate what percentage of 2020’s total harvest will be lost due to fires. Looking at the location of the fire and spread of its smoke, a worst-case-scenario could see as much as 70-80% of the red grapes in the region unusable this year. Between COVID-19 upending the supply chain and fires destroying millions of dollars worth of vines, grapes, and wine, it would not be unreasonable to see some (high) irregularities in wine pricing over the next several years. 


As terrible as all of this is, Napa and Sonoma will rebuild. The communities are tight-knit, supportive, and strong. It took years, but the region has largely recovered from the massive earthquake damage in 2014 and the devastating fires of 2017. Perhaps the only thing that recovery efforts and parties share in common is this: “the more, the merrier!” So many of us have had the privilege of basking in the sun at a favorite winery on a lazy afternoon, sipping on a glass of very fine wine. If you too appreciate what Napa and Sonoma have contributed to your life, your help in restoring the region to its former glory will be gratefully received. 


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