Amador and El Dorado vintners deal with physical injuries, smoke-tainted grapes, and contract cancellations
Following the Labor Day weekend, there was a sigh of relief when the Caldor fire was directed away from many homes and resort towns by changing wind conditions.
As of publication on the morning of Friday, September 10, the Caldor Fire has burned 218,405 acres and is 53% contained, according to CalFire.
Kara Sather, executive director of the El Dorado Wine Association, says the local wine community is grateful for the so-called “ant hill crew,” a group of neighbors in the Somerset area who banded together to protect the area.
Crucial in the defensive battle was Randy Rossi, co-proprietor of Saluti Cellars. A former law enforcement officer with a firefighting son and son-in-law. Over the past 10 years, Rossi strategically prepared his 250 acres for the possibility of fire, “masticating” trees and preventing re-growth by implementing cow-grazing. The popular winery is now protected by a 500-foot, park-like firebreak around the winery and played a crucial role as a staging area for fire trucks and firefighters, as they did not lose power due to their back-up generator and solar energy systems.
“On the left side of the Caldor fire map, you can see an area that looks like a crab claw. Our property is in the middle of the unburnt area; fire officials stated that our pond, our efforts, and our ability to stage task forces contributed to that unburnt area,” Rossi comments to Wine Industry Advisor from the hospital where he recovers from knee surgery—an injury sustained fighting the Caldor flames.
Harvest is a Go, But Fruit Quality in Question
Though Saluti lost three wedding reservations during the mandated evacuations, Rossi remains positive about the harvest ahead. Though it may be too late to harvest his Sauvignon Blanc as he awaits smoke-taint test results, Rossi has more hope for his later-ripening red varieties.
Jack Gorman, executive director of Amador Vintners Association, notes Amador’s experiencing an early harvest with smaller overall crop size. “But, of high quality for extraction, flavor and color,” he says.
In an official statement the Association stated that it’s too early to predict the exact impact of the fires on the 2021 vintage, but that “Overall, we continue to be cautiously optimistic.”
Cancelled Grape Contracts
Hank Beckmeyer owner of La Clarine Farm paints a more bleak picture on his social media over the cancellation of grape contracts in Amador County. He comments that some wineries are requesting smoke-taint testing before harvesting the contracted fruit, but results for those tests can take four to five days—and even longer when labs are highly impacted during the fire season. “Then [they’re] using this delay to claim the grapes are overripe,” he says.
On Instagram, Beckmeyer writes, “I spoke to one grower today who wrote $140,000 in contracts on one vineyard alone; only one winery has taken their grapes. Yes, he has crop insurance, but it only pays based on county-wide averages. He will be lucky to get $70,000 in insurance money.”
Beckmeyer stressed the importance of the grower in the wine production chain. “It’s not fair to place the entire financial burden of growing great grapes on these vineyard owners,” he says. “Agriculture is a community. We need to share the ups and downs of farming equitably.”