One crop was saved, the other lost.
The story of the 2017 vintage of winegrapes on Atlas Peak is a story of opposites for Richie Allen and Rob Mondavi Jr. Both farm vineyards on Atlas Peak, an area hard hit by an October wildfire that destroyed houses and wineries and damaged vines.
Richie Allen, director of viticulture and winemaking for Rombauer Vineyards, is in charge of 25 acres at 1,650 to 1,750 feet. He said the wildfire damaged a half-acre of his vines, but unlike his neighbors he harvested 60 tons of grapes last October and finished picking and crushing grapes at midnight on Saturday, Oct. 7, a scant few hours before the wildfire began.
With the heat spikes on Atlas Peak, Allen said the vineyard “tends to race away in terms of development very quickly in the growing season.” In the two weeks before the wildfire, crews were selectively harvesting grapes and the last of them were on the top of the vineyard, which Allen said would have been heavily affected by the fire. “We finished picking and crushing the night before. People ask me, how did you do that? It’s just luck, there’s nothing good about it, it’s just luck,” Allen said.
“Our neighbor managed to fight the fire back around his house, which also protected our house and vineyard. We only lost half an acre, at the very bottom, out of 25, so we’re very, very fortunate,” Allen said.
Mondavi, a part of the Michael Mondavi Family Estate, farms 15 acres of what he calls “absolutely extraordinary” vineyards – the Animo Vineyard — from 1,270 to 1,350 feet on Atlas Peak. The soils are volcanic and rocky and their vines use a great rootstock, 110R, which Mondavi said penetrates the soils with roots that go deep to get the nutrients and the limited water that is available.
The fires scorched two of the 15 acres and Mondavi said they are replanting the vines that were first planted in 1999. “We had planned a replant in three or four years, so unfortunately, we’re jump-starting that process a little bit early,” he said.
Mondavi lost his entire crop for 2017. He said, “The ’15 and ’16 vintages are extraordinary and we’ll take a pass on ’17 and be back in full force in ’18.”
He added, “We’re trying to find the silver lining in this: Nobody got hurt, we lost the crop and we have the opportunity to do more things in the future. I don’t know how else to look at it.”
Allen and Mondavi were two of the 10 wineries pouring at the Atlas Peak Premiere Napa Valley party, held Feb. 22 at Napa’s Black Stallion Estate Winery. Sam Peters is the executive director of the Atlas Peak Appellation Association. “After the fires as far as the numbers are concerned, I was told 77 out of 105 homes on Atlas Peak were destroyed,” Peters said. The vineyards acted as fire breaks, and although vines on their edges were burned, the wildfire didn’t destroy complete vineyards.
The 2017 crop, though, is a different story. “We had folks who lost their entire vintage because of smoke taint – smoke was present for many, many days,” Peters said, “but it was not a total loss everywhere.”
Philippe Langner, owner/winemaker for Hesperian Wines, has 14.2 acres, although he says it’s a little less since the fire. His whole vineyard is surrounded by chaparral and the edges of the vineyard got scorched, he said. “But now that we are pruning, we are seeing a lot of vines that were affected, but the wood is still green.” After cane pruning, if the wood is dry, his crews are leaving suckers to give the vines a chance to bud from the cordon.
If that doesn’t work, then Langner said he will cut the vines above the bud graft and hope to start it from there.
“I have for sure 300 vines that were carbonized. The grapes were still on the vines and when I first got there, everything was black. It was charred with the grapes still on it,” Langner said. Although he said he was waiting to see what buds, “it is less bad than I first imagined.”
Crews had picked a little less than two tons before the fire and they were set to pick the rest the day the fire began. Asked to evaluate those grapes, Langner said they “are beautiful, the best that I’ve ever had, so I’m really, really bummed that I missed all the great fruit that was still hanging out there.”
Three weeks later, when he was first able to get into his vineyard, crews picked another three tons, although he is keeping the two groups separate. Of the second pick, he said, “It smelled good, it tastes good, but the finish is pretty ferocious. So I’m hoping to do some trials and hoping to correct that flaw.” Depending on the outcome of the trials, the wine will either go into a bottle of mine or not, he added.
Michael Parmenter and Kiky Lee, owners of VinRoc Wine Caves, lost their home on Atlas Peak, but not their wine caves or the wines inside of it. Although the property is cleared, Parmenter said their priority has been to get his business running again — and it has taken four months.
“Just in the past couple of weeks, we finally got the electricity back there,” he said. “The last peg was yesterday (Feb. 21) to get the propane going again.” With electricity, the pumps for the well are working and the repairs to the damaged septic field are done.
In the vineyard, the main line coming out of the well was replaced and a lot of the drip tubing has been replaced. “We’re just now finishing repairing some of the fence posts around the vineyard,” he said.
Crews removed some 150 vines that the fire damaged and Parmenter said the rest “look like they’re going to be OK.”
Of the 2017 crop, Parmenter said they harvested a couple of tons worth of Cabernet Sauvignon, which “looks terrific at this point. We’re really happy with it. The rest we couldn’t harvest because of the fire.”
Sam Peters said all the damaged properties on Atlas Peak have been cleared and added, “There’s talk of people rebuilding, but it’s slow. I know people are having trouble rebuilding. Everyone lost everything at the same time. They’re having trouble getting their structures rebuilt, it will take time.”
But he added, “As far as the wine is concerned and the vineyards, it is looking better than folks once thought. I do want to mention all the positive things about our comeback. We appreciate all the support from folks (in the wake of the wildfires). Atlas Peak has been in the news because of the fires, but I’d rather get in the paper because you tasted our wines and you’re saying, these are good wines.”
Those pouring at the PNV party were Antica Napa Valley, Black Stallion Estate Winery, Hesperian Wines, Krupp Brothers Estates, Lagniappe Peak Vineyards, Lobo Wines, Michael Mondavi Family Estate, Prime Solum, Rombauer Vineyards and VinRoc Wine Caves.