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Why Napa and Sonoma's Tragic Harvest Season Could Culminate in an Amazing Vintage

Smoke taint be damned.

This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

Even before the firestorm, it was clear that producing 2017’s vintage was going to be “exceptionally difficult,” in the words of one winemaker. A scorching summer, including a record-breaking Labor Day heat wave, forced vintners to harvest earlier than normal. Many vines were deprived of moisture by the searing heat and metabolically shut down, reducing grapes to raisins.

Then, five weeks later, came the red winds and the inferno and the evacuations, the air-choking smoke, and the days of terror. Along with the incalculable loss of lives and livelihoods came a new threat, “smoke taint,” which could leave the year’s wines tasting like a grape-flavored ashtray.

Smoke taint is the damage done to grapes on the vine by smoke or ash in the air. The smoke penetrates the grapes’ leaves and skin and binds to the sugars in the fruit. Given the amount of ash that rained down on the North Bay—“the creepiest, scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” says Lise Asimont, a winemaker at Francis Ford Coppola Winery—wine lovers worried that the 2017 vintage could all be ruined.

Despite the blizzard of ash, however, some winemakers believe that the smoke taint fear is overstated. “I think the effect is going to be a lot less than what people are making it out to be,” says Kirk Venge, winemaker for Venge Vineyards in Calistoga. So far, none of the crush he’s tested has come back positive for smoke taint, and both Venge and Asimont are cautiously optimistic that for people who love wine—and who valorize the hardworking souls who make it—2017 will be a vintage worth celebrating.

How can this be so? First, let’s put the potential threat in perspective: Napa and Sonoma Counties, combined,make about 10 percent of California’s wine. Their vintners’ associations claim that more than 90 percent of the grapes in each county had already been harvested before the fires. That means only about 1 percent of the state’s total harvest was at risk. Everything harvested early—including grapes for sparkling and white wines and most if not all pinot noirs—was safely fermenting inside airtight tanks when the fires hit.

A great majority of the grapes that were still on the vine were cabernet sauvignon—the varietal by which a California vintage will, fairly or not, be judged. Even still, any lingering smoke taint should be easy to blend out, according to Venge.

What it will mean is that winemakers will have to use more early-harvested grapes in those blends than usual. And because it was such a hot year, those grapes should be flavor-packed, so Asimont and Venge expect 2017’s wines to be rich. “If you love really big, heavily structured, extremely aromatic wines…this vintage is definitely going to make its mark,” Asimont says.

Smoke taint wasn’t the only variable thrown at this year’s harvest. Normally, Napa cabernet is one of the most technologically sophisticated wines in the world, requiring precise control of the temperature of fermentation tanks and carefully timed punch-downs and pump-overs. Because of the fires, much of that technological winemaking did not happen on schedule in 2017. Some fermentations got hot as the grapes were left alone to ferment more naturally. As a result, some wines might not taste like they usually do—they might, for a certain kind of wine lover, actually taste better. More complex. More interesting.

This excites me, because this is what wine is supposed to be about: vintage variation. Outside of a few dedicated pinot noir producers who accept the vagaries of Mother Nature, we don’t usually see this anymore in Northern California. But we will see it with 2017 Napa and Sonoma wines, born as they were of a changing climate and an unrivaled human catastrophe. “I think it’s going to be very mixed emotions when we taste these wines,” Asimont says. She’ll remember the scorching Labor Day heat wave; the hurry to harvest grapes ripening early; the ash raining down on her Santa Rosa home; the amazing community of colleagues who, despite having tanks already full of their own harvest, gave shelter to truckloads of her grapes. She expects the vintage to be “painful” but also “gorgeous,” something to be loved by all who wish to support the farmers, pickers, and artisans who proved to the world how astonishingly tough—and resilient, and ingenious—our winemakers really are. I can’t wait to taste what they give us.

Originally published in the December issue of
San Francisco

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