By Barbara Barrielle
The Lightning Complex, or LMU fire, came earlier this year than Sonoma and Napa had experienced in recent years, so many of the vineyards had hanging fruit. A few whites had been harvested and early ripening Pinot Noir but those harvests were in the minority.
“There are some higher end and small luxury wineries that have decided not to do some estate and vineyard designate blends,” say Brian Clement, Vice President of Turrentine Wine Brokerage. “But there are no medium-large wineries that are forgoing the entire 2020 vintage. There is no reason for consumers to worry about the quality of 2020 wines when they come to market. Wineries will make sure the expected quality is in the bottle for what they release.”
Premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer, Trombetta Family Wines, is one of the smaller wineries that decided to forgo the 2020 and concentrate on selling through existing inventory and building their future marketing efforts.
“The Gap’s Crown Vineyard and Indindoli Vineyard both suffered smoke taint. The fires happened at the worst possible time between veraison and ripening,” said Rickey Trombetta. “The smoke just settled into the Petaluma Gap and stayed for days. We brought in some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and did micro-ferments but the smell and taste of smoke were obvious.”
One of the dangers of skipping a vintage is that loyal followers may head to another wine brand if they do not see yours. Trombetta has inventory of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but their popular Rose will be missed by long term customers.
However, the damage to a winery brand caused by producing smoke tainted wines would be an even greater risk. Somerston Estate in the Vaca Mountain area of Napa Valley lost 1,400 of their 1,682 acre ranch to fire and all of their premium grape vineyards, many of which make up the wine in some of the most desirable Napa Valley labels, including the Somerston and Priest Ranch labels.
“At Somerston, we take pride in the grapes we grow, sell, and vinify. We make no compromises,” says Craig Becker, co-founder and director of viticulture and winemaking at Somerston Estate. “We stand unwavering in our long-term commitment to this property, as well as to our winery partners, customers and distributors.”
Smith Story Winery in Anderson Valley has also decided to not produce a 2020 harvest. “It’s not defeating, it’s Mother Nature and a risk we all take in farming and winemaking. It would be short-sighted for any winery who produces wine for their livelihood to bank on one single vintage,” says Allison Smith Story. “Late spring, we already made the choice to scale back Harvest 2020 due to oversupply in the market then Covid hit, we lost 90% of our wholesale business due to restaurant closures and shut-downs.
“This has made a bigger impact to our winery than anything since we began 7 years ago. Thankfully, we have an import ‘Eric Story Selections’ part of our business, but due to tariffs, the wine that is produced for us in Germany is on hold now too,” continues Smith Story. “We’re very focused on keeping things steady and slowing bringing on more organic growers to our family vineyard partners, maybe we’ll be able to take a week or two off for the first time ever and I mean ever since we started our first vintage in 2014! Silver linings…”
Other wineries saw a drastic reduction in what they would bring in to process in 2020. Jeff Cohn Cellars, a popular Rhone and Zinfandel producer in Sonoma explained his approach this year. “Out of more than 80 tons we were going to bring in we will have only four tons by end of harvest,” says Cohn. “We cut back due to Covid and then we got smoke. Double Whammy!” Cohn will also produce a Syrah out of Walla Walla, Washington this year.
Sam Lando of Lando Wines is frustrated by the challenges brought on the wine business in 2020. When Covid-19 began, restaurant wine sales dried up fast, and then when the LMU fires hit in August, Lando lost all of the grapes he had under contract and was looking at an even more dismal 2020 until friend and winemaker Greg Brewer let him know about some Pinot Noir available on the Central Coast close to the legendary Sea Smoke Vineyards. Taking ten tons and letting another Russian River winemaker know about his score, both are now able to produce a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir.
Some wine producers are comfortable talking about the 2020 like Papapietro Perry Winery who got most of their Pinot Noir picked in the early part of the LMU fires, feel very positive about the fruit and assure consumers there is no trace of smoke taint. Ketcham Estate Wines is in the same position, bringing in almost all of their fruit as soon as the evacuation lifted and still in the early days of the fire, seeing it on the horizon as they rushed through picking before the smoke settled.
The bulk market may become stronger as grapes are scarcer. “The grape crop in many areas was going to be down from lower yields per acre mostly due to Mother Nature’s seasonal challenges. In addition to Mother Nature, fewer grapes from certain varieties will be harvested in mostly coastal regions due to smoke exposure and the concern over smoke taint in the wine.” Says Turrentine’s Clements. “Sonoma County and Monterey County Pinot Noir and Napa Valley and Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon are likely to see the greatest impact from the smoke exposure. There is very little impact on the grapes in the Northern and Southern Interior regions.”
“Actual and estimated lower yields from the 2020 vintage have brought buyers to the bulk market to increase the volume of 2019 or to source bulk wine from a different area. Some prices have increased on wines that have sold. Asking prices for all bulk wines have increased. Buyers are cautious about paying the increase in price since it is very hard to get the consumer to pay more per bottle. The higher asking prices have also brought some additional wine to the market, but the volume that sold or was kept by wineries is greater than the wine added. Right now, there are considerably fewer gallons of bulk wine actively for sale than last year at this time.”