It’s been three weeks since devastating fires swept through California wine country, yet only now is the impact to the wine industry being truly defined. We know for a fact that 42 people lost their lives in the October 8th fires that swept through five counties, including Napa and Sonoma. And, more than 8,400 residential and commercial structures were destroyed.
We can’t lose sight of the human tragedy that cost lives and catastrophic financial loss, so to even write about anything else is difficult. We have many friends and associates who told us of fleeing for their lives only to return to devastation. Still, the fires beg the question: what will become of the wine from the 2017 harvest?
The initial stories of widespread damage were exaggerated. Although reports are still coming in, we know that at least 27 wineries suffered significant damage – that’s out of 1,900 wineries and cellars in just Napa and Sonoma counties. Most notably Signorello, Frey Vineyards, Gundlach-Bundschu, Jarvis Estate, and Paradise Ridge – lost winemaking facilities, tasting rooms and/or vineyards.
Put into perspective, according to University of California Davis’ Agricultural Issues Center, Napa and Sonoma counties account for less than 1 percent of the region’s winemaking capacities. The Central Valley, untouched by fire, produces 70 percent of California’s wine grapes.
Most significantly, 90 percent of the grapes in the impacted area had been picked when the fires struck. What remained, however, was most of the prized cabernet sauvignon because it is the last variety to fully ripen. The producers who make those coveted, expensive, cult cabernets will be the most severely impacted. UC economists predict a $66 bottle will cost $100, which doesn't impact most people who buy wines ranging on average from $9 to $15.
With that established, there are still some daunting facts that expose the California wine industry to challenges in the next few years.
First, about those cabernet sauvignons we all love and collect.
Because of their moisture content of grapes and vines that are still green, vineyards don’t burn well. Firefighters said they even counted on the vineyards to block some of the spreading fires. Faring worse in the agricultural industry was the cannabis crop – seven marijuana farms were destroyed by fires, making the event the worst year for marijuana production. So, drink up but don't light up.
Cabernet sauvignon skins are rather thick and thus more impervious to smoke. However, the degree of “smoke taint,” as it is commonly known, won’t be known until tests can be done on the fermented grape juice. Even then, producers have means to mitigate the ashy flavor found in tainted wines. However, filtration can only lessen the damaging taint. We remember tasting smoke-tainted wines that were produced after the 2008 fires, and they weren’t pretty.
Most likely, top producers will choose not to vinify any cabernet sauvignon tainted by smoke.
Second, white wines probably were fermenting happily in heavy stainless-steel tanks. However, those wines fermenting in wood barrels surrounded by rising heat may not have fared so well. Wines need to ferment in cool temperatures.
Can small producers afford to dump tainted wine – white or red? Will larger producers of inexpensive wines release substandard products in a "fire sale" and hope consumers won’t notice? Wine from the 2017 vintage will be highly scrutinized and their quality remains to be seen.
But damage to the 2017 vintage is by far the least of California’s problems. Insurance will cover a lot of the financial loss. Not covered will be the loss to tourism. Visitors have been canceling hotel reservations and wedding ceremonies in droves. Last year, Napa Valley alone attracted 3.5 million visitors who spent an average $402 a day, accounting for an economic impact of $13 billion in Napa County and $13.4 billion in Sonoma County. A lot of jobs will be lost if the tourists don’t return.
No doubt the shortage of California wine from the state’s top regions will result in price increases for what is saved. This comes on top of reports from Europe that wine production – the worst in 50 years -- is expected to drop 14 percent over last year, due mostly to widespread frost and hail damage. Italy alone is expecting a 21 percent drop in volume. Only in Oregon is wine production expected to increase. Those who collect those California wines that emerge unscathed will pay dearly for their prizes.
If you want to support Californians suffering from this disaster, visit Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino counties soon. We doubt you’ll see the damage you expected and the wines from the 2016 and 2015 vintages are tasting great now.
Here are some Sonoma and Napa wines to enjoy now:
Frey Vineyard Sonoma Reserve Zinfandel 2015 ($20). One of the first to embrace organic and biodynamic farming, Frey continues to produce one of the best zinfandels in Dry Creek Valley. This one embodies varietal blackberry and raspberry flavors with hints of pepper and spice.
Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($38). You get a lot of fruit and depth for the money here. With a dash of petite sirah and petit verdot, this richly textured wine has a broad palate of flavors: blackberry, cassis, blueberry, and plums and a good dose of licorice.
Freemark Abbey Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016 ($25). This is a delightful quaffable sauvignon blanc with ripe citrus and pear fruit and a soft round mouthfeel. A nice counter point to the New Zealand herbal/grapefruit style.
Quilt Chardonnay Napa Valley 2015 ($36). This is a full throttle chardonnay on steroids. From the same winemaker Joe Wagner that brought us Meiomi pinot noir. Ripe, tropical fruit nose and flavors with toasty oak elements in a delightful mélange. A terrific white wine for boldly flavored fish and chicken dishes, this wine will also do well all by itself.
Amici Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 ($50). This is a well-made, classic Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Exhibiting luscious berry and cherry nose and flavors, it is framed with cedar notes. Already showing well this wine can easily evolve for 5-10 years at least.