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Fires in California Wine Country…..Again

LNU Fire Map

We got a break last year from the wildfires in wine country. After a devastating 2018 fire season ravaged Napa and Sonoma right around Cabernet harvest in October, 2019 proved a welcome respite.

While I’ll let you all look up the current state of the LNU Complex fire that is burning in wine country, as of last night (August 26th) the fires were sitting at 33% containment.

While any loss of vineyard is difficult to deal with, as the soils take approximately 2 years to get ready for new planting and after vines are in the ground, it takes 5 years for the grapes to be usable for world class wine grapes.

Any loss of life is of course the biggest issue and is incredibly tragic. Luckily first responders have gotten really really great at evacuating people and the total loss of life looks like it’s currently under a dozen people.

But, there’s one major factor that we haven’t really had to deal with in California wildfires over the past few years…..smoke. I’ve talked about smoke before, but really many consumers misunderstand how smoke is imparted to grapes. The grape skins are thick enough to keep the smoke out, but the smoke can be imparted from the leaves into the grapes through the plant.

In the past, the wildfires have come late enough in the season that this hasn’t been a significant issue. This year is completely different.

When this current crop of wildfires began, harvest was only beginning. Not even all the light alcohol white wines in Sonoma had been harvested and virtually none of the reds.

For the first time in California we’re looking at basically a lost vintage if the smoke sticks around for too long. It’s unprecedented in modern times and left winemakers with a crucial choice.

Two Choices:

Chance it.

Make Rose.

As you might expect, most are going to chance it. But I hope you’re ready to drink a lot of really, really great cheap Rose from Napa and Sonoma. The onshore breeze is back, it not only cools everything off and adds humidity, but it blows the smoke back out the valleys to the east. While that isn’t great for Sacramento’s air quality, it is good for air quality in Napa and Sonoma. So that choice to chance it, might actually work out.

Lastly, I think you’ll see one other choice that comes into play. If the smoke is largely gone by this weekend (possible given smoke dies down as soon as a fire hits 60% containment and we’re over half way there) some winemakers are going to hope that letting the grapes hang on the vine will let some of the smoke taint fall out.

Will it? There’s some decent research from Australia, but this entire phenomenon is relatively new and the research into it is new and ongoing.

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