How Did 2020's Wildfires Impact California Wine?

Six months after the fires subsided, vintners are still assessing how much fruit suffered smoke taint

How Did 2020's Wildfires Impact California Wine?
Vines at Reverie Vineyard & Winery stand scorched in late September, not far from where the Glass fire started. (MediaNews Group/East Bay Times/Getty Images)
Mar 23, 2021

"We didn't make any red wines in 2020," is a refrain echoed by many California winemakers these days. Perhaps no year has seen so many wine regions impacted by so many wildfires. Months after the fires ended, the impact is only just now coming into focus.

What made 2020 so difficult was that it brought multiple blazes. It often felt like the flames and smoke were never-ending. The devastating LNU Complex fires ripped through Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo and Lake counties in August and September 2020 and severely impacted harvest. In Monterey and Santa Cruz, multiple fires razed land near vineyards. Then, just as the smoldering was ending in late September, the Glass fire ignited, destroying wineries and vineyards in Napa and Sonoma.

During the nearly three-month period, wildfire smoke often lingered, creating hazardous air conditions at times and threatening large portions of the state's wine grape crop. Some winemakers refused to throw in the towel, but the smoke proved too much for many others.

A patchwork of damage

The $3.24 billion question is: How many good wines were winemakers able to make in 2020? That dollar figure represents the value of California's wine grape crop, and we still don't know the fires’ full economic impact. Smoke impacted some vineyards more than others and was nearly impossible to predict. Some grapes tested negative for the compounds that cause smoke taint, but then some wines made with those grapes tested positive.

Paul Hobbs, who makes wines from vineyards in both Sonoma and Napa, reports that he lost grapes from two key Sonoma Pinot Noir vineyards and more than 100 tons of Napa Cabernet. Still, many of the wines he did make are showing well at the moment.

"I don't pick up any of the acrid, sooty notes right now," he said. "Some lots show some elevated levels from analytics [testing], but on the sensory level, they're mostly vibrant." Hobbs said they still haven't determined whether to bottle some of the potentially problematic wines, but believes they'll have a better sense by summer.

Justin Seidenfeld, director of winemaking for Sonoma's Rodney Strong Vineyards, says they lost about 40 percent of their grapes due to smoke damage. "Pinot Noir was our biggest casualty," he said. "We lost 85 percent, and all of our reserve-level vineyards were unusable." The winery's Davis Bynum brand also made no Pinot Noir.

Seidenfeld said they found that their highest levels of smoke damage were in vineyards the farthest from fires. This correlates with what some researchers have discovered: Proximity to the fire isn't the sole risk factor for smoke taint; density and duration of smoke exposure matter more. The smoke could blow away from vineyards close to fires, but if it lingers anywhere for a significant amount of time, the potential for smoke taint rises.

Julie Pedroncelli St. John, vice president of marketing for Pedroncelli, said they decided to pick all 115 acres of their Dry Creek Valley estate grapes because of their location in the AVA’s northeastern corner. "The smoke was mostly heading south," she said. She laments that the winery did not take grapes from some local growers they contract with.

California's grape crush report data for 2020 showed the vintage down 13.8 percent from 2019, totaling almost 3.55 million tons. Overall volumes in the North Coast dropped by approximately 30 percent, including a 43 percent reduction in Napa Cabernet and a 39 percent drop in Sonoma Pinot Noir.

These numbers don't paint an entirely accurate picture, however, partly because 2019 was a very large vintage and partly because of how wineries were instructed to report grapes affected by smoke taint in 2020.

For instance, grapes harvested but not crushed due to smoke damage were still reported, including the contracted price, even if the grapes weren’t paid for. Similarly, grapes that were crushed but whose resulting wines are still under evaluation or were later discarded due to smoke damage were also reported. Grapes rejected before crushing due to smoke damage were not counted.

The fact that some grapes showed taint while others did not but produced tainted wine makes the vintage even more frustrating. John Conover, partner and general manager at Napa's Cade, Odette and PlumpJack, said none of the three wineries made any reds. Roughly 80 percent of their production is red wine. "We sent grape samples to multiple labs for testing, and we had a couple of vineyards that came back that weren't positive in terms of smoke taint. But after ferment, they did come back positive."

Farther south

Monterey crushed nearly 22 percent fewer tons of grapes in 2020 compared with the previous vintage, including a 37 percent drop in Pinot Noir. But plenty of vintners made wines. Dave Nagengast, vice president of winemaking for Scheid Family Wines, which farms 4,000 acres, reported minimal defects. "We were concerned due to the presence of smoke in the air over the vineyards, but as it has subsequently unfolded, the smoke had little to no impact on the resulting wines," said Nagengast.

In lots where there were elevated smoke compounds, Nagengast said they used tools to minimize the impact. One of them is a "flash détente" system, a process where grapes are quickly heated to about 180° F and then shifted into a vacuum chamber, where they are cooled. "Flash détente has been used in France for years and can help mitigate unwanted characteristics, such as pyrazines," said Nagengast. "Because of our extensive testing to identify potential at-risk fruit along with our processing protocols, we've experienced no need to do any creative blending, new bottlings or other mitigation methods."

Ian Brand of I Brand Family Wines says he was able to pick 90 percent of his grapes, which are primarily sourced from Monterey County. "Overall, the quality [of grapes that didn't show any smoke taint] is fantastic, with great success for reds out of San Benito and whites from around Salinas Valley."

Brand said one lot is showing perceptible smoke effects, and two others might be problematic. "That being said, there's still a lot we don't know about smoke taint," he said, noting how the wine might change with age. He has already tested all the wines once and plans to test them all again before bottling.

Learning for the future

Like others, Brand fine-tuned his ferments by removing skins or fermenting wines at cooler temperatures. He declassified some wines. Others he couldn't make at all, including three single-vineyard wines. He believes this year holds lessons for winemakers that they will have to be more proactive with future vintages. "These fires are a drastic indication that climate change is here and will continue to get worse before it gets better," he said.

Vintners back in Napa and Sonoma also used 2020 as an opportunity. Jeff Ames of Rudius in Napa, who also makes the wines for Tor and several other small labels, said he didn't make any red wines. But he ended up picking around 25 percent of the Cabernet despite knowing that some or all was ruined. "We thought maybe we could learn something," he said.

He and his team conducted fermentation trials, using variables such as fermentation temperatures and additives, recording how smoke taint manifested in the tank. "A few were nasty. The sort of thing where you want to hold on to a few bottles to show people what smoke taint tastes like."

Andrew Delos, director of winemaking for Far Niente Family of Wineries and Vineyards, which includes Napa's Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel and EnRoute winery in the Russian River Valley, said they left a lot of estate vineyards unharvested. But they also picked grapes for educational purposes. "We wanted to do everything we could to understand impacts and help educate for future vintages," he said.

 Jeff Ames
Jeff Ames made several small batches with smoke-tainted fruit for experimental purposes, knowing it could be a problem in future years. (Jessamyn Harris)

Salvaging losses, protecting reputations

Every winery, no matter how good or bad its 2020 was, is now thinking about the future. That means surviving financially and protecting their reputation among consumers.

For Conover, this was the first time they had to use their crop insurance. Before they could even drop fruit that was ruined, they had to call their insurer. "An agent came out and wanted to know the last three years' history of crop loads," he said. Looking to the future, Conover said they worked with a fire department battalion chief and have spent $100,000 on fire prevention, including tree trimming and creating a larger defensible space around the Cade winery and vineyards on Howell Mountain.

Most vintners reported having crop insurance, which won't cover all losses but helps alleviate basic farming expenses. Seidenfeld said all of their growers, with a few exceptions, had some level of insurance. "Those that didn't have it, we worked with them to figure best solutions. In some cases, we made some bulk wine on their behalf [that they could sell]." Seidenfeld said they've also extended contracts with growers, even if they were set to expire, and are working to support a farmworkers fund to help offset the cost for those that were hit the hardest.

Whether wines were made or not, the consensus is that brand integrity is the name of the game, and the worst thing any winery can do is put out a flawed product. "There's too much at stake," said Ames. "You're asking the consumer to assume all the risk, and if you send something out on the market, you better be able to look at them with a straight face and say you made it to the best of your abilities."

Brand says that in bad vintages, winemakers who are honest and tough on their wines will build deeper trust with the consumer. "We're going to be honest and straightforward and share the results of testing. We couldn't sell a wine that we're not comfortable with," he said.

When it comes to the marketplace, Conover is anticipating taking the 2018 and 2019 vintages and spreading their release over the next three years, with the hopes of managing key accounts. "This is a strategy to reduce the financial impact but keep our placements," he said.

A silver lining for some is that both the 2019 and 2018 vintages were big and of excellent quality, and wine lovers will have plenty to enjoy even if few 2020 wines reach store shelves. Still, the key takeaway is that the wines that did get made in 2020 are likely to be very good. "I hope people understand how hard we all worked and don't just dismiss this small but very mighty vintage," said Seidenfeld.


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