How Damaged Was California’s 2017 Wine Harvest By Fires?

California’s North Coast is like my second home, so it was difficult to watch the devastation from at least three wildfires that occurred there during the second week of October. I know many people that lost much of their wineries and their homes. It’s hard to report objectively about the 2017 grape harvest, when the apocalyptic fires caused so much harm to the very fabric of people’s lives.

And since these fires hit, Napa and Sonoma wineries, restaurants and hotels, have lost tens of millions of dollars in tourism. Readers should know that Napa, Sonoma and all of wine country is open for business and the best thing retailers and wine lovers can do is to support North Coast California wineries and businesses.

Harvest Before the Fires

The 2017 wine harvest in Northern California appears to be of relatively high quality and generally lighter in size than the average crop. The late winter and early spring of 2017 produced a lot of rain that was badly needed in the region. This was just what the doctor ordered, as ground water was perilously low.

Prices in Napa and Sonoma Valleys have skyrocketed over the past two years since the tiny 2015 vintage. With lower yields and a strong economy, the bulk market has become very expensive. Many producers with wine programs have had to take their pricing up or move from appellations like Napa and Sonoma to make it a more generic “North Coast” designation. Negociants that do not have Estate vineyards were hopeful this could be a much needed bumper crop, but hopes were dashed with heat spikes.

While producers in Napa and Sonoma have been on a serious roll in recent times with increased demand, strong direct-to-consumer programs and the market accepting higher pricing, many are concerned that something has to give. Cabernet Sauvignon has been king with prices of this varietal on fire with the consumer having an insatiable appetite. Pinot Noir has also been solid, with firm pricing and demand in the top appellations like Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Carneros quite strong.

The good news is the 2017 vintage will be of high quality, but more Bordeaux-like with unique flavors that are expected to be less overripe with measured intensity. This vintage was all over the map in terms of weather, with early promise but uneven conditions, with decreased yields because moisture was lost in the clusters. Luckily, there were no rain events through early October.

I visited in late August, just at the time that a dreaded heat wave hit Napa and Sonoma Valleys. In fact, there were two weeks of oppressive heat that followed. One day it was over 117 degrees and some grapes appeared to be getting scorched. The other problem was that with the extreme heat the vines started shutting down, dashing any hopes for an early and bountiful harvest.

The affable winemaker Leo Hansen opined that, “With the first heat spike in June that lasted 5 days and another one in late August, it dried the grapes and there was less ripening. This harvest is of high quality with lower yields and you really had to stay on top of the wines.” Prominent winemaker Scott Harvey, who has vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and Amador Counties adds, “The heat put the vines into shock and stopped ripening. It also decreased the size of the crop, but the growing season was solid overall since there was longer hang time.”

It did cool down again in early September, which helped save the crop. I returned again in late September and some moderate heat returned to continue the ripening process. Visiting wineries in both Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and in the heart of the Napa Valley, the grapes appeared to be of high quality with solid bunches and limited shatter.

Bryan Davidsen, the winemaker from Michel Schlumberger Winery, says “the heat spell was tough. Everything came in at least a week later than last year. It was a worrisome harvest but in the end the grapes have really nice flavor and colors.” Going into mid-October there are still some grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc that had yet to be harvested, so the verdict is not complete.

Ashley Herzberg, the winemaker for Bacigalupi Vineyards and River Myst Haven Winery, says the Sonoma harvest was all over the map depending upon the location and varietal. She notes “It was the most up and down vintage I have seen and certainly had its challenges with cold weather, heat spikes and foggy conditions.” While Pinot Noir was up in the vineyards she harvested, Chardonnay was down and Cabernet appears that it will come in light.

Scott Harvey is very excited about the crop and called it one of the five best in the last 43 vintages. “The colors are tremendous and it reminds me of the 1979 and 1990 vintages. In Napa, the flavors are just great with lower alcohol and a touch less ripeness. This vintage captures the true flavor of what Napa is meant to be and Sonoma is generally solid but with more intensity,” he adds.

After the Fires

And then on November 8th the unthinkable happened as massive wildfires began to hit at the time that Northern California was harvesting Bordeaux varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon. Some wineries had picked, but generally about 10-15% of the crop was still hanging in the vineyards. Three wildfires started running out of control, hitting some areas very hard (like Santa Rosa).

Atlas Peak was also particularly hard hit.

I have visited most of the wineries in this sub-appellation and watched with horror as this fire packed a powerful punch. Vinroc Winery, one of my customers that routinely receives strong press on their highly regarded wines, lost just about everything. I spoke with owner Michael Parmenter, who said “At 9:30 pm on October 8th we lost our power and phones, and could see fire in the distance. We called 911 and left our home to see what was going on and as it turned out we never returned. By the next morning, we had lost just about everything including our home, all personal possessions, the guest house, barns, irrigation systems, fencing and some vines. We lost about 80 to 90% of our vintage.”

He noted that their cave survived (along with the 16 vintage), their vines will be fine and the 14 and 15 vintages are safely stored away from the winery.

Other wineries were reportedly hard hit, from devastation at Signorello Vineyards, to lesser damage at Stags’ Leap Winery, William Hill Estate, Darioush and Gundlach Bundschu.

One winery that dodged a bullet was St. Supery Winery. Its Dollarhide Vineyard was not affected at all. They did have smoke at their Rutherford Vineyard, but after sending out the grapes for tests, there was no smoke taint damage to the grapes. Affable winemaker Michael Scholz said that wineries are still assessing the full effects of the damage, even though most reds were picked. He notes that “some wineries rushed the picking as they didn’t know if the fires would approach. And there is certainly smoke taint in some locations. It got very tricky with evacuations, road closures and getting crews in. Some wineries couldn’t even run equipment to keep maceration going for reds and you don’t want the whites to get hot.”

Scholz made clear that Napa is open for business and was positive and optimistic about the 2017 vintage. Like most vintners, he too stressed the need for wine lovers to come back to wine country and that most wineries are fully intact.

The one lasting question about this vintage will be smoke taint. Even though varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon are durable, some wineries had part of their harvest hit with a lot of smoke and it will take time to fully assess the consequences.

As the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Jonathan Newman was once the nation’s largest wine buyer. Follow him on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website: www.newmanwine.com. Read his recent piece, A Tour Through Napa Valley’s Sub-Appellations.

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