So Far, The El Dorado AVA Is Dodging the Smoke-Taint Bullet
September 3, 2020, El Dorado County, CA – Starting the first week of September, lower-elevation vineyards in the mountain AVA of ElDorado (1,100 to 1,200 feet) officially launched 2020 crush with their Rosé and sparkling picks. By the end of the week, most vintners below 2,500 feet are on to what Chuck Mansfield of Goldbud Farms vineyard management company describes as “the next dance-hearty white varietals such as Viognier and Chardonnay and the sensitive reds, like Grenache and Gamay.” By the third week in September, even the highest-elevation (2,900 to 3,000 feet) wineries like, Miraflores Winery and Kehret Vineyards will be in full pick.
One of the exceptions to the regional timing is Gwinllan Estate in the Fair Play region, producers of Méthode Champenoise sparkling wine. They picked Chardonnay at 18 Brix in mid-August for their maiden Blanc de Blancs.
In the northern part of El Dorado County, usually referred to as Camino/Fruitridge and home to the busy tourist destination Apple Hill, some vintners are coordinating the stone fruit and apple harvest with the wine grape harvest. Edio Vineyards at Delfino Farms grows wine grapes and apples while tending to the legendary bakery on the estate. This is the inaugural harvest in their new winery. Co-owner Christine Delfino, while christening their first load of grapes, breathlessly described the scene: “Apple Hill tourist season is starting, apple harvest is starting, grape harvest is starting, first time managing both the bakery and tasting room . . . everything will be fine. Let me know when it’s December!”
El Dorado has experienced mostly moderate weather in 2020, with two uneven events. Chaim Gur-Arieh, owner/winemaker of C.G. Di Arie Winery, says that early rains brought a lot of weeds, vine shoots, and leaves, requiring more labor to normalize his vineyard. A heat spike in mid-August bumped up veraison but did very little to change picking dates. Yields and timing are close to normal.
Paul Bush, winemaker/owner of Madroña Vineyards and Rucksack Cellars, says, “Grapes are coming in with great acid and generally very nice uniformity.” He adds, “Hopefully temperatures will cool significantly in the next week, elongating our harvest.”
Cool breezes flow down from the Sierras into El Dorado AVA during the evenings, but the granitic and volcanic stones and soils hold warmth from daytime heat, preventing vines from shutting down from cold temperatures. With conditions like this fruit has long days to hang for bright fresh reds and brisk, crisp, well-structured white varietals. Starfield Vineyards’ owner/winemaker Tom Sinton takes advantage of these conditions by picking all his white grapes and most of his reds at night until late September, when temperatures get cooler. Doing this, he also avoids overripening and a caution against possible smoke issues.
Dodging the Smoke Bullet
To date, El Dorado AVA remains wildfire-free, although evidence of the valley and coastal fires in Northern California is prevalent with the smell of smoke. Jonathan Lachs, owner/winemaker at Cedarville Vineyard, comments, “We’ve had more than this level of smoke in the past, possibly worse in 2015 and 2018, yet the wines from these vintages have shown no sign of smoke taint.” He adds, “It is generally known that smoke taint impacts vineyards closest to the source of smoke or proximity to an actual fire.” Helpful is that fact that in El Dorado AVA, dense cold air flowing downslope from the Sierras moves in under the layer of smoky air and pushes it out. That’s why there isn’t a heavy layer at the vine level.
Mansfield says that while “some smoke has moved into the region; nothing has been thick or smelly.” In a proactive move to protect their grape buyers, Goldbud Farms is sending many grape samples in for analysis for smoke taint. Mansfield says, “To date, results have come back far below the threshold level where smoke is noticeable, and buyers haven’t refused any fruit.” He adds, “I’m cautiously optimistic because so far cool air has been moving in and out like fog this year.”
Bush says, “If things change before we’re done harvesting, we’ll change some fermentation protocols to help adjust for the smoke potential.”
Although unscathed by fire at this point, El Dorado vintners feel a solidarity with winemakers from affected regions. Lachs comments, “I feel terrible for my friends and colleagues who are impacted in Santa Cruz and the North Coast.” Mansfield sympathizes: “We all feel bad for our comrades who have gone all the way to the finish line for this to happen.”