California wildfire forces shutdown of famed Big Sur parks

Smoke surrounds the ruins of a home that was destroyed by the Soberanes Fire in Palo Colorado Canyon on the northern Big Sur Coast.

Associated Press

Grape growers are keeping their eyes on their crops at a dozen wineries in Carmel Valley closest to the Soberanes Fire, which has burned over 60,000 acres since it began more than two weeks ago in Monterey County.

The grapes have been exposed to heavy levels of smoke as they undergo veraison, when the berries change color indicating they're moving closer to ripening, and many growers can't do much to protect their crop, Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association executive director Kim Stemler said.

The Soberanes Fire sparked on July 22 at Garrapata State Park due to an illegal campfire and has charred 60,400 acres. It was 45 percent contained as of morning, Cal Fire officials said.

More than 5,000 firefighters are working to extinguish the blaze, which isn't expected to reach full containment until the end of the month and has already destroyed 57 homes and 11 outbuildings, according to Cal Fire.

The fire led to the death of a 35-year-old private contractor whose bulldozer rolled over while batting the fire. Three other injuries have been reported, Cal Fire officials said.

Luckily, the fire started just before veraison, but the sustained smoke exposure can lead to smoke taint, which can change the smell and flavor of a grape, Stemler said.

The 12 wineries cover about 325 acres, make up less than 1 percent of the total wine grape crop in the county and produce an estimated 130,000 cases, Stemler said.

The grapes are sent to laboratories where they're tested on a regular basis for many elements including smoke taint, which could also change a grape's molecular structure, Stemler said.

Monterey County wineries have a longer growing season for grapes compared to places such as Napa County where there are sunnier weather conditions and growers haven't begun harvesting, Stemler said.

In the face of smoke taint, many wineries may choose to make more rosés that requires growers to remove the skin right away as opposed to pinot noirs, in which the skin is left on during the fermentation process, according to Stemler.

"This year is going to taste differently," she said.

Pinot noirs that are made with thinner-skinned grapes are more susceptible to smoke than ones with thicker skins used to make malbecs, Galante Vineyards owner Jim Galante said.

The smoke becomes systemic to the product and can't be easily washed off, according to Galante.

The growers have to send their grapes to a laboratory for testing once all the smoke is gone and the grapes are ripened, which could take another one to two months, Galante said.

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Once the testing is complete, the winery will have a better idea of the levels of smoke taint in the grapes to determine which ones they'll use to make wines and what flavors they'll create, he said.

Many people continue to ask for the "great" wines produced following the Basin Complex Fire near Big Sur in 2008, Galante said. 

Most of the grapes from that year were further along the growing process and a majority of visitors enjoyed the barbecue tastes from the wines, he said.

While the winery wasn't striving for a smoky flavor, it was an "intriguing" time, Galante said.

The winery was recovering from the 2008 wildfire when the Soberanes Fire started. The winery has also been forced to cancel events because of the fire and are not allowing any visitors at the tasting room because of many road closures in the area, he said.

All of the vineyard's wines are made with grapes from the estate and Galante has crop insurance that can cover a fraction of the losses, Galante said.

"Everybody's just going to do their best and try to survive with their crops. We just don't know if we're hoping for the best, but we're preparing for the worst," Galante said.

At the same time, Galante remains optimistic about the future for wineries in the area, which has been internationally renowned for its production.

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