The Extent of Smoke Damage to Napa Valley's 2020 Vintage Remains Unclear

Napa Valley Vintners says at least 80 percent of wineries will produce a 2020 vintage, but how much wine will be released is uncertain.

When wildfires once again tore through the Napa Valley this year, the immediate concern was saving lives, saving property, and containing the blazes. But once that difficult work was done, uncertainty quickly set in. Sadly, some vineyards suffered direct hits, but even for those that escaped fire damage, the resulting smoke put grapes throughout the entire region at risk of smoke taint. And so, though wine from the 2020 vintage will be released, how much and by how many wineries is still being determined.

Despite the devastation, Napa Valley Vintners (NVV)—the region's trade group—is staying optimistic, reportedly suggesting that at least 80 percent of wineries in the area plan to proceed with the 2020 vintage. Of Napa Valley Vintners' 475 member wineries, the association said that only 11 wineries reported major or complete damage to winery structures, according to The Drinks Business.

Smoke obscures the trees behind a Napa vineyard
Smoke obscures the trees behind a vineyard along Silverado Trail as firefighters work to contain the Glass Fire in Napa County on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020 in St. Helena, CA. Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

"Everyone's harvest was interrupted to some extent. But winemakers take all of this in their stride. It's their job to take what mother nature gives and turn it into wine, and in some cases make critical decisions about whether that wine meets the quality standards of their brand and our region," Connor Best, NVV's head of international marketing, told the site. "The 2020 vintage, while challenging, is not lost."

However, just because a winery survived, doesn't mean all their grapes can be salvaged. "Every vineyard and every varietal that was hanging after August 17 from Mendocino all the way down to San Luis Obispo has a smoke taint number," Rick Aldene, North Coast winegrapes manager at Agajanian Vineyards, told Wine Business Monthly last week. "That is a fact. Not one grower can say 'I don't have taint.' I can tell you, every grower has a taint number now. Some areas are much less affected and the taint numbers are extremely low and completely manageable in the winemaking process."

Along those lines, Best admitted that the actual volume of wine lost due fire could not yet be determined, adding only that "the harvest will be smaller than usual." But other media outlets have been painting a more unsettling picture of just how much "smaller" the vintage may be.

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle spoke with Philippe Melka—cited as a winemaking consultant for over two dozen high-end brands—who told the paper his red grape harvests were only about 35 to 38 percent of what he'd planned. And Atlas Vineyard Management—which runs 3,500 acres of vines—said its grape haul was only about 60 to 65 percent of what they had hoped. At least a handful of wineries even suggested they may be forced to make no wine at all this year.

And John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, was also a bit more blunt in his assessment for the entire state. "At this moment, we don't have data on the amount of wine grapes that have not been harvested as a result of the smoke exposure concerns," he recently told USA Today, "but I can tell you it's very significant."

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for E & J Gallo clarified to The Drinks Business that part of the difficulty of predicting these losses is that smoke damage can take time to reveal itself. "While smoke taint is a concern, in many cases, it is too early to tell as we won't know specific impacts until after fermentation, and throughout the year ahead," the spokesperson stated. It's a reminder that while a fire can be put out, the damage to wineries can linger long after the smoke has dissipated.

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