California 2020: A Lawyer’s Vintage

The 2020 vintage was, quite simply, a disaster for California wine. But until recently, quantifying just how badly the fires affected harvest has been difficult. The wine industry is understandably touchy when it comes to communicating what is perceived to be bad news about a vintage.

Most organisations such as the Napa Valley Vintners association or Sonoma County Winegrowers association quite deliberately seem to avoid using the words ‘smoke taint’, preferring to speak about ‘smoke exposure’ or merely offer bromides such as ‘every one of our members made some wine in 2020’, which after a vintage like 2020 seems the equivalent of, ‘it’s just a flesh wound’.

Some wine producers, though, don’t feel the need to pull any punches.

‘I’m not making a single drop of red wine in 2020’, said Chris Carpenter, winemaker for the Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota, Mount Brave, and Caledon wine labels, all of which are owned by Jackson Family Wines. ‘I started picking and got maybe two-thirds of the way through, and I was thinking to myself we were just wasting money, and so we just stopped.’

Carpenter oversees nearly 400 acres (160 ha) of estate vineyards for Jackson Family Wines in addition to buying an additional 10–20% of his total tonnage every year from outside growers.

‘I’m making wines that sell for $100 to $450 per bottle’, explained Carpenter. ‘There’s just no way I’m going to put out a wine that a collector is going to buy, trusting that it is good, and then have issues four or five years down the line when bound-up smoke compounds have released and it tastes like an ashtray. They’d lose their trust for me, for our wines, and they would never buy again.’

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Image of Dale Harvey’s Pigasus Vineyard wreathed in fog, courtesy of Pigasus Vineyards. Harvey suffered significant losses in 2020 due to smoke.

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Smoke Taint Looms Large in CA

It has now been six weeks since the successful containment of the Glass Fire, a 67,484-acre (27,310-ha) blaze that burned in both Napa and Sonoma Counties. Despite the first winter rain having fallen in California a week or two after containment, an official end to the fire season has not yet been declared. Nonetheless, wine producers across northern California are moving on with the vintage, though that means many different things to many different people.

Official information about the full impact of the fires, beyond acres burned and structures destroyed, remains difficult to come by, especially when it comes to the wine industry. In fact, such information may only ever be truly available via retrospective analysis, when various governmental and trade organisations obliged to report on grape and wine production tell us how many acres were harvested and how much wine was actually produced.

Only when the US Department of Agriculture releases its annual Grape Crush Report on 10 February will we have a sense of the full extent to which this year’s fire season has impacted the vintage. Until then, and up to the point that a new vintage is in the barrel, many individuals and most organisations are trying their best to avoid the topic, and indeed even the words themselves: smoke taint. This is for fear of creating an impression with consumers that might in any way reduce their propensity to buy wines from the 2020 vintage.

Continue reading this story on JancisRobinson.Com.

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her web site. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Image of discarded Zinfandel grapes courtesy of Steve Moazed and Bar None’s Canyon Vineyard.

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Harvest of Fear

Writing a column about the state of harvest on America’s west coast in the face of historic wildfires seems to be an exercise in futility, akin to filing an article about a marathon only halfway through the race. By the time you read these words, the world may look very different.

Of course, the world already looks different.

Last Wednesday 9 September the sun didn’t rise in San Francisco, as smoke from hundreds of wildfires blew into the lower atmosphere around the Bay Area, resulting in an entire day of eerie orange twilight that unnerved most of northern California, as shown in the photo above from Lamborn Vineyards at the top of Napa’s Howell Mountain. 

At the time this photo was taken, the 83,000 residents of Medford, Oregon, were huddling in evacuation centres following a rapidly moving wildfire that ripped through more than 3,000 acres (1,200 ha) on Tuesday night, devastating the communities of Medford, Phoenix and Talent, and destroying at least one winery in the Rogue River Valley AVA. Two small fires began and were quickly controlled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley this week, even as two massive fires converged to the south-east of Portland, forcing the evacuation of an estimated 500,000 residents on Thursday night.

The week before, two large fires in Washington’s Colombia Valley wine region were brought under control, but with more than 75,000 acres (30,000 ha) burned, smoke continues to filter to the east towards Walla Walla as wind currents shift.

In all, more than 3.4 million acres (1.4 million ha) so far have burned or are burning throughout California, with fires in (or threatening) the Russian River Valley, Napa, Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Lucia Highlands winegrowing areas. The single largest fire in California history is burning in the north-west part of Mendocino County but thankfully has stayed away from the Potter Valley and Redwood Valley viticultural areas.

Continue reading this story on JancisRobinson.Com.

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her web site. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

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