Home Industry News Releases Sonoma County Winegrowers Offer First-Hand Perspective on Impact of Latest Fire

Sonoma County Winegrowers Offer First-Hand Perspective on Impact of Latest Fire

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September 2nd Webinar Will Provide More Insight and Detail

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (August 31, 2020) – With the 2020 winegrape harvest just underway, many growers in Sonoma County were anticipating a vintage crop following a near perfect growing season.   Overnight on August 17, everything changed as a rare dry lightning storm moved across northern California creating hundreds of fires set by lightning strikes. 

As the day progressed, the LNU Complex Fire erupted burning parts of Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Yolo, and Solano counties.     Although it has become the second-largest wildfire in state history, the LNU complex fire primarily burned in the surrounding mountains and ridge tops rather than the Valley floor, where most of the vineyards are located. 

As the fires near containment and we can turn our attention back to harvest, it is important to first provide some critical perspective and correct any myths about the 2020 Sonoma County harvest and vintage. Sonoma County is comprised of more than one million acres.  Vineyards comprise just 6% or 60,000 acres of the total local land.  There are 18 AVAs (American Viticulture Area) in Sonoma County and the fire impact was  just in 3 of those 18 areas. While there has been some smoke exposure in the area, it is too early to know if and what the extent of any smoke issues with the fruit will be given the many factors that contribute to smoke damage  –  vineyard proximity to the fire area, slope of the vineyard, wind, exposure time, white versus red grapes, and more.  There will be some grapes that go unpicked and some wines unmade, but there will definitely be a 2020 vintage from Sonoma County. Also, it is important to recognize the early start to the harvest, one of the earliest on record, with over 15% of the grapes harvested before the fires started.

As harvest continues, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation fund has been re-opened to raise funds to support local farmworkers who may have been impacted through evacuations or loss of work due to the wildfires. Since 2017, the Foundation has supported over 1,500 local farmworkers and provided $1.2 million in direct financial assistance. To support Sonoma County farmworkers, please visit www.scggf.org.

To learn more about the fires and ask questions about the 2020 winegrape harvest in Sonoma County, you are invited to register for a free webinar this Wednesday, September 2, beginning at 2 p.m. (PST).  It will be moderated by Wine Enthusiast’s Virginie Boone with SCW President Karissa Kruse and special guest panelists Duff Bevill of Bevill Vineyard Management, Kim Stare-Wallace of Dry Creek Vineyards and John Bucher of Bucher Vineyards. The Zoom registration link for the webinar is: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ihSR-a3PRI-KMHqWT9BSUA 

With the grape harvest underway in Sonoma County, here are some insights and perspectives from Sonoma County winegrape growers and vintners on the LNU fire and their 2020 grape crop:

Jeff Zapelli, WALT Wines

It is really early to say what will occur with Zin, Chardonnay and Pinot. We are optimistic on fruit grown in the wind gap, both our chardonnay and pinot noir do not seem effected by the smoke. Tests were sent to labs, so we won’t know for a bit as they are behind getting everyone their results.

Joy Sterling, Iron Horse Vineyards

Our first day of harvest for bubbly was August 10 – before the storms and subsequent fires. We expect to be done next week. We feel  100% confident about our quality. Crop size is down about 30%.

Magaret Yarak, Hawk Hill Vineyard

The color of the pressed pinot juice was a wonderful dark color with intense aromas this year, despite harvesting a full month ahead of last year. We sent our grapes for smoke damage testing and they came back negative – no discernible evidence of volatile phenols.

Nate Belden, Belden Barns

We have been stressed and pessimistic, but the first rough chemistry test (a whole berry test, which is the most rudimentary of the tests) results came back clean today. 

Ames Morison, Medlock Ames

I think it is still too early to say definitively. It depends on how long the smoke lingers in the air. My gut feeling is that most of the wines will not suffer.

Bill Smart, Lambert Bridge

Given all the unknowns that we are currently facing, I think it would be premature to comment on this harvest.   We are still 2 or 3 weeks away from picking a Bordeaux red grape!!  I am still completely confident that we will be able to produce great wine – albeit at reduced yields and smaller overall tonnage than what we planned for.

Andy Smith, Dumol

The 2020 harvest was always going to be our earliest on record as our vines budded-out on March 5th & have been ahead all season. I have no fear whatsoever of smoke taint on any of these lots mentioned above. The first time I became concerned was 8/26 – the first day the smoke felt like it was “settling-in”, from daylight until 3pm when it cleared. Today is perfectly clear and fresh.

James MacPhail, Wines by James MacPhail

Let us not rush to judgement regarding the overall impact of the fires to crops. I am seeing just as much fruit with ’no’ smoke taint versus fruit with ‘minimal’ numbers, not knowing yet if it will eventually even show by sensory post fermentation (meaning numbers in some key areas are super low).

Glenn Proctor, Ciatti

2020 has all the makings of an excellent vintage – with excellent weather , minimal disease pressures, and a perfect ripening curve.  I feel confident that we will be able to still make excellent quality wine this vintage – because we know so much more now than we did a few years ago.

Maggie Kruse, Jordan Wines

I am very optimistic that we are going to come out of this nail-biter unscathed. Our growers have been working day and night to ensure that the best quality fruit is delivered to the winery is clean and pure.

Chris O’Gorman, Rodney Strong  Wine Estates

This is the earliest harvest ever in the over 60-year history of Rodney Strong Vineyards.  This growing season, going back to early in spring, was one of the very best in recent memory with idyllic conditions throughout, leading to vines and grapes all in tremendous balance.  It is much too early to make any sweeping pronouncements on the 2020 vintage.

Betsy & Bill Nachbaur, ACORN Winery/Alegría Vineyards

Our ACORN Winery/Alegría Vineyards are about five miles east of the Wallbridge fire, and we are cautiously optimistic.   Most days last week, we had blue sky at least part of the day , since the wind was blowing north or south rather than east. Although there are some singed bay leaves and redwood needles on the ground, there is no visible ash on our grapes or the leaves. 

Ashley Herzberg, Amista Vineyards

The 2020 vintage, like every harvest, is having its challenges but honestly, the fruit we are bringing in is just beautiful. Smoke taint is something we are continually monitoring but so far, has not been found in any of our lots that have come in to this point. We may have to pivot stylistically but that by no means says that we won’t be able to make amazing wines.

Kim Stare-Wallace, Dry Creek Vineyards

While the fires were very serious for part of the county, we are extremely fortunate due to our location of our family winery. None of our vineyards, nor our winery, were directly affected by the fires…other than the emotional toll it has taken.  We remain optimistic about having high-quality fruit. However, we will do pre-harvest testing to verify this fact.

Ana Keller, Keller Estate

The windy afternoons of the Petaluma Gap are cooling the vines and we are waking up under the cover of fog. Flavors continue to mature; acid is great and we are starting to pick Pinot Noir. Seems that harvest will be fast and compact. Quality looks gorgeous. Beautiful, even bunches.

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