Ray Isle

Northern California’s 2017 Vintage isn't in as much jeopardy as people think.

Ray Isle
October 16, 2017

I swear, if I see one more nitwit headline that says “California’s 2017 Vintage Is Doomed by Smoke,” I’m going to bonk someone over the head with a bottle of Napa Cabernet.

Here’s why. While there’s no question that the recent wildfires in northern California’s wine regions have filled the air with smoke, that does not mean the 2017 vintage is doomed. Or even particularly damaged. Far from it.

Smoke taint in wine occurs when grapes (or leaves, or vines) absorb smoky compounds and transmit them into the resulting wine. One such case was the 2008 vintage in Mendocino and northern Sonoma, where forest fires in Mendocino cast an eight-day pall of smoke over many vineyards in the area, and as a result many wines suffered from a bitter, ashtray-ish quality (most quality growers whose wines were affected refused to release them). But those fires happened early in the growing season, when grapes were still developing, which is a key difference.

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The single most important thing to remember regarding Napa Valley and Sonoma County’s 2017 wines—keep this in mind two years from how, when you see these bottles on shelves—is that the vast majority of the grapes in the area were harvested before the fires ever started. In Sonoma County, Karissa Kruse, the president of Sonoma Grape Growers, points out that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were done being harvested several weeks ago.

“Twenty-seven percent of our crop is Chardonnay; twenty-two percent is Pinot," Kruse told Food & Wine. "So, in terms of almost sixty percent of the whole harvest, that wine is made. It’s in barrels, and is fine. Another twenty percent of our crop is Cabernet Sauvignon, but a big part of that was already in, too.”

Napa Valley skews more towards later varieties like Cabernet, but even so growers report anywhere from sixty to ninety-five percent of their grapes were picked before the fires started.  Peter Heitz at Turnbull Wine Cellars in Napa Valley’s Rutherford area had ninety-five percent of his grapes in before the fires. At the winery’s Amoenus vineyard, in an area of Calistoga that was evacuated for several days, he said on Friday, “We have about five tons of fruit still on the vine. That’s out of fifty acres of vineyard, so it represents about a three to four percent loss. But the thing people have to realize about smoke taint is that all the wine in vats and barrels is fine. Sure, losing four percent of my fruit isn’t good, but it won’t change the quality of the wine I make.” 

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Jim Barbour, a vineyard consultant for over forty top Napa properties, comments similarly. “The 2017s I’ve been tasting are all there—purity, brightness, amplitude of fruit. The wines are awesome. Ninety-nine percent of what I do is Cabernet, and I’d say of the 500 acres we farm, probably 400-plus were picked already.”

For grapes still on vines, admittedly, the situation is less clear. Barbour adds, “The stuff we’re picking now, that’s really hard to say. I’ve been tasting berries every morning, but some of the problem has been grapes you just can’t get to, because of closures and evacuations. So with those, quality-wise, who knows? If you have fruit sitting in this smoke for eight to ten days, that’s just an unknown.”

At star producer Realm Cellars, winemaker Benoit Touquette concurs. When the fires started had seventy percent of his fruit in. The remaining thirty percent he’s fermenting lot by lot (after misting the grapes with clean water, among other precautions), and sending samples of every single lot to be tested for smoke residue. Anything that tests positive will never end up in his 2017 wines.  Touquette, in fact, spent every night at Realm during the fires—since the Silverado Trail was closed off, he knew he couldn’t get back in if he left. “I was living on Top Ramen, and had to take showers in the barrel room with a hose. But that’s ok. It’s a top quality vintage. And if we beat this smoke thing on these last few grapes? Bam. We’ve got it.”