Harvest in a Time of Flames and Pestilence—Another Challenging California Vintage

Wildfires and coronavirus punctuate harvest struggles, as concerns over weather, labor and grape supplies loom for California wineries

Harvest in a Time of Flames and Pestilence—Another Challenging California Vintage
The LNU Lightning Complex fire tore through a property on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg in Sonoma. Some woods in the area had not experienced a fire in a century. (Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Aug 27, 2020

Harvest is underway in California. But before many vintners were able to bring in their first crops, a historic heat wave followed by a series of unseasonal thunderstorms sparked an unwelcome beginning. Lightning strikes ignited dozens of fires throughout the state, and fires in winegrowing regions of Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Santa Cruz, Contra Costa and Monterey have forced many vintners to evacuate, while complicating harvest for countless others.

Emmitt-Scorsone winemakers Emmitt Palmer and Michael Scorsone spent the last few days hauling finished wine and other essentials out of their winery off West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg in Sonoma County. The Walbridge fire has been burning in the hills above their property since Aug. 17. "The fire has been all around us," said Scorsone. "It's a miracle the way the fire is going in a horseshoe around us."

When the fire started, Scorsone had yet to start picking grapes, but was preparing for bottling another vintage. "I had a lot of full tanks with filtered and fined wines, which I had to transfer into stainless steel drums," he said, noting that a local shipping company that has a cold warehouse is allowing him to store the barrels there.

Winemakers like Scorsone have spent a lot of time behind the evacuation lines in recent years. Saving finished wines, or the latest vintage, or even a life's work, has become the norm in recent years.

John Hawley of Hawley Winery knows firsthand. John and his wife, Dana, built their house overlooking a neglected vineyard in Dry Creek Valley in 1975. After years as a winemaker for Clos du Bois and Kendall-Jackson, Hawley started his own brand in 1996, constructing his winery adjacent to his house. His sons, Paul and Austin, who have joined the family business, reported that since the fire started he has been spending nights on a cot inside the winery as flames burn nearby.

But the 2020 vintage is adding more trials for wineries. Fires, labor shortages and an oversupply of grapes have plagued vintners in recent years, but this year coronavirus–related issues add an extra layer of complications. Economic burdens resulting from shutdowns and new safety protocols to deal with COVID-19 are challenging vintners' adaptability in an unprecedented way.

"We have no power; we're surrounded by fire, and we almost certainly have smoke taint; I don't know if it can get any worse," said Scorsone.

A vintage under fire

As of Aug. 27, the multiple blazes known as the LNU Lightning Complex fire have consumed more than 368,800 acres in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Solano and Yolo counties. Better conditions this week have allowed firefighters to achieve 33 percent containment. Further south, the SCU Lightning Complex fire has burned more than 368,000 acres in the mountains east of San Jose, while the CZU Lightning Complex has consumed more than 80,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And those are just the largest of multiple fires burning in the state.

Wallbridge Fire
A fire blazes in the forested hills around Hawley Winery in Sonoma. The winery has survived, but the surrounding land has been burned. (Courtesy Hawley)

The wildfires have closed countless roads, and with many wineries and vineyards lying in evacuation zones, winemakers like Scorsone are left anxious about their properties. "If we would have had bad winds, we would be a goner," said Scorsone, noting that every day he keeps driving to the winery and moving as much as he can out of harm's way.

Farther up West Dry Creek Road, Hawley is also a stone's throw from fire danger. Paul Hawley said despite the western portion of the valley being in a mandatory evacuation zone, safety crews have allowed some winemakers in, and that he and Austin have been making runs to the top of the ridge above their winery to survey the fire. "It's been a slow fire, rather than a giant firestorm," he said. "It seems like we're out of the woods as long as winds don't pick up, but everything from the top of the ridge west looks like a wasteland."

Austin said they're early into harvest, so there isn't a lot going on at the winery, but they have multiple generators to keep the winery and water pumps running. He hopes to get crews in next week to begin picking from their 10-acre estate. "It's a grim situation; we're hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst."

Just down the road from Hawley, Quivira winemaker Hugh Chappelle said he doesn't want to ask staff to work in an evacuation zone but is worried that more delays could lead to a condensed harvest. "We're concerned and on high alert, but we're not quite to the point of being completely stressed out," he said, noting that he has been checking on the wines currently fermenting in tanks.

Chappelle is also pondering how long to wait before sending grape samples for analysis for potential smoke taint. Even as firefighters start to gain control over the blazes, the danger of smoke taint lingers in the air. The smoke has not just impacted the areas where the fires are burning, but also surrounding counties. Smoke has drifted and hung in the air for days.

Austin said his dad is optimistic, but both he and Paul are nervous. "We're going to do some analysis for smoke taint for the estate grapes and other vineyards we use in evacuation areas," he said.

"Until Sunday, the wind was mostly blowing the smoke away, but now the winds have changed, and the smoke is hanging," said Paul. "We're not at the end of this story yet."

Smoke taint is tricky to predict. Most research conducted on the matter suggests that grapes are most susceptible to smoke taint between veraison (the onset of ripening) and harvest, which is precisely where most wineries find themselves now. Many vintners are in the first weeks of harvesting early-ripening varieties, while others are optimistically scheduling picks for the coming days.

Then there are those, like Scorsone, with late-ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. They're holding their breath that smoke doesn't destroy the crop. "Our estate has been socked in with smoke, and we're still four weeks away from picking. I don't know how to get out of this without smoke taint."

In Napa, Garrett Buckland, co-founder of vineyard consulting company Premiere Viticulture and past president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, said everyone is incredibly cautious right now and doing a lot of testing. "It's very different than 2017, in that we haven't picked most grapes," he said. "But so far, results from several vineyards show the numbers coming back are below the threshold for smoke taint."

Buckland said despite the smoky conditions, much of the smoke is blowing in from a distance and that proximity from vineyards, duration and density has a lot to do with potential smoke taint. "A lot of the lingering smoke we're receiving isn't as damaging as it looks."

COVID protocols

"I always lose sleep during harvest, but throwing COVID in adds another dimension," said Zach Rasmuson, COO for the Duckhorn Portfolio. He said its team has been planning ahead to alleviate some concerns. "Each of our winemakers put their winemaking protocols in writing so that each will know how to make each other's wines," he said. Having this emergency plan in place will allow him to shift both staff and grapes to another location if necessary. Some of the Duckhorn wineries have also partnered with neighboring wineries to be each other's contingency plans.

One of the biggest concerns is how one or more staff members contracting coronavirus might impact labor. Many wineries have adopted measures beyond the guidelines that the Wine Institute, the California Association of Winegrape Growers and California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance have jointly developed for vineyard and winery operations based on current governmental health and safety guidance.

Tree burns
A tree on the edge of one of the Hawleys' vineyards catches fire. Grapes are ripening all over the region, but harvesting in such conditions is challenging. (Courtesy Hawley)

Rodney Strong in Sonoma and Hess Family Wine Estates in Napa have formed pods of workers who will stay together to decrease exposure. "Crews will work in groups of three to four people, and can perform their project in different areas of the winery," said Justin Seidenfeld, director of winemaking for Rodney Strong.

Daniel Ricciato, who oversees 60 vineyard sites for winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown, said some of Brown's various winemaking facilities are better suited than others. "One thing we've done is add tanks that pump themselves over," he said. Ricciato said staff leaders also impress upon their workers that being a team player this year goes beyond the winery. "The hardest thing is that COVID is new; there is no playbook."

Farther south in Paso Robles, Hope Family Wines president Austin Hope said it's business as usual. "We've initiated all standard protocols, and it seems to be working," he said, citing that the county will have COVID-19 tests available. "We're ready to test daily if we have to," he added.

Hope said one concern the team is trying to figure out is how to deal with shoveling the skins out of tanks after fermentation. "Normally, there are two or three people inside a tank," he detailed. He added that everything would probably end up taking longer, but he's confident they'll get through it.

Labor and grape supply questions

Those with the fortune to pick early are in good shape, not just because of the fires, but also because of access to workers. No one reported an immediate concern for labor shortages but noted that a COVID-19 outbreak might drastically change availability. "Labor shortage is always in the background, but just imagine if a quarantine happens on a day during harvest," said Rasmuson, citing that he believes picking crews are at the most risk, as they often travel by caravan and spend a lot of time assembling around bins.

The dormitory-style housing provided by some vineyard managers is another challenge. One anonymous dormitory in Sonoma had a worker test positive, forcing other occupants to move. Two housing centers operated by Napa County had a similar situation, prompting the relocation of those living there.

Buckland said the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Napa Farmworkers Foundation put a tremendous amount of resources into education and testing, including a mobile testing unit. But beyond COVID-19, harvesting during smoky conditions is also a concern. "We secured a huge amount of N95 masks in advance to harvest, mostly for COVID, but they help for working in smoky conditions."

Then there's the quantity of grapes. According to experts at Silicon Valley Bank and Allied Grape Growers, the wine market is in a state of oversupply. And that doesn't just mean there are too many grapes. They estimate that too many vineyards are planted, producing too many tons of grapes from every region, in every category and at every price point. Inventory is backed up, distribution is clogged and demand is down, with wine sales flattening and the bulk wine market in oversupply after significant back-to-back crops.

Before the heat wave and fires, most vintners reported that quality looked good, with lower than average yields, which may offset the oversupply. Buckland said yields are now looking to be 20 to 30 percent below average, but he can only look to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other early-ripening grapes for indicators.

"After the last two big vintages, it's not an unwelcome thing to have lower yields," he said, adding, "It's never a good thing to have unexpected declines, but this should help put us back into a normal situation." Buckland also said most vineyards made it through the heat spell with minimal damage. Some isolated vines with specific grapes were sunburned.

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Dave Guffy, senior vice president of winemaking and viticulture for The Hess Collection, sees an average crop size for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, but lighter yields for Napa Chardonnay, which he said is partially due to a late frost in April that reduced yields as much as 50 percent in some blocks. "Layer on top any grapes affected from wildfires, and I believe we will close the gap on grape oversupply."

With the added economic stress that COVID-19 has presented, with closures of tasting rooms and restaurants leading to a steep decline in sales, some wineries are canceling and modifying contracts to take fewer grapes and make substantially less wine in 2020. Ricciato said some of Brown's clients, many of whom make ultra-premium Cabernet brands, are more conservative about how much tonnage they want for their 2020 wines. "Even those with estate vineyards that generally take their entire crop are exploring selling grapes," he said.

"We're all making judgments now," said Buckland, adding that everyone needs to have the mindset to be making their best wine. "We need to keep business going where we can; the grapes don't stop maturing."

—With reporting by Augustus Weed.

News 2020 Wildfires COVID-19 Disasters Economy Harvest Fires Cabernet Sauvignon Chardonnay Pinot Noir California Napa Sonoma United States 2020

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