The heat of the growing season, not smoke, will define the 2017 vintage of Napa Valley wines.
Even though October’s massive wildfires burned tens of thousands of acres, in both Napa and Sonoma counties, destroyed thousands of homes, commercial and outbuildings and disrupted so many lives, it did relatively little damage to the grapes in the Napa Valley.
That was the conclusion of a panel of grapegrowers and vintners who gathered in St. Helena on Nov. 2. The group discussed the fires, the need for tourists to come visit the Napa Valley (see sidebar) and the 2017 vintage. Although the Atlas and Tubbs fires destroyed hundreds of homes in the Napa Valley, the valley’s vineyards and its grapes were mostly unaffected. Why?
The group ticked off several reasons:
Due to heat throughout the growing season, 90 percent of the grapes had been harvested before the fires began late on Sunday, Oct. 8;
Seventy-five percent of the valley’s cabernet sauvignon grapes also had been picked before the fires began;
The remaining grapes were all cabernet sauvignon, which has a tougher skin than other grape varietals and can resist damage, even from smoke;
The smoke from the fires was worse in the city of Napa than on the valley floor, from Oakville and Rutherford to St. Helena and on the hillsides, such as Pritchard Hill and Howell Mountain, where most of the Napa Valley’s cabernet sauvignon is grown; and
In 2008, when there were also fires and smoke in the Napa Valley, the grapes were still green and pre-veraison, so both the grapes and skins absorbed the smoke. This year, the grapes were post-veraison and their skins were hard, so the smoke did less damage.
The panelists included grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer; vintners Russell Bevan, Geoff Smith, Roy Piper and Will Segui, who works with Thomas Rivers Brown; Michael Loconto from Barbour Vineyards and hosts David and Monica Stevens, owners of 750 Wines, where the discussion and wine tasting was held.
Testing for smoke taint
Additionally, as these growers and vintners picked their cabernet sauvignon grapes, they tested them for smoke taint. Beckstoffer, whose cabernet sauvignon vineyards are on the valley floor from Oakville to St. Helena, said one of his employees, Dave Mitchell, did a test on Oct. 16, a week after the fires started.
Beckstoffer said Mitchell went into a specific vineyard and picked two clusters of grapes. One he put into a baggie; the second he washed off the dust and the ash from the grapes and then bagged them. He sent both to ETS, a testing lab in St. Helena, and neither sample was smoke-tainted. “There was not one bit of difference (between the two samples) in the test,” Beckstoffer said.
Geoff Smith, who owns the Blueline Vineyard off Dutch Henry Canyon Road, a few miles south of Calistoga, said he had a similar experience. He put water in a blast sprayer and hit rows of vines with water, seeking to clean off the ash. Grape samples were taken from both the rows blasted with water and those not blasted, and neither sample showed signs of smoke taint. Smith said, “We got zero difference in smoke taint.”
He added, “We’ll find out what happens with those wines as they complete fermentation, but it will probably be post-malolactic before we have a real sense of whether or not we have any issues with (smoke). But the early word is that we’re pretty good with that fruit. Check back with us in three or four months.”
He added though that he would assume most people would keep separate any suspect or funky fruit in the cellar and evaluate them, as they did in 2011, when mold was “a real issue to contend with.”
And, if they’re found to be funky, the winemakers will “find a different home for them. They certainly won’t find their way into the premiere wines,” Smith said.
Michael Loconto chimed in: “I think you make a good point, regarding the amount of days, a couple, that most of these places hung out in smoke. Most of the valley floor was already picked and some of the later-ripening sites, such as Howell Mountain and Pritchard Hill, they didn’t really see much smoke, so they are fine.” Obviously, “there are vineyards that were at ground zero that were devastated,” he said. “But, I think for the most part it’s going to be a good vintage.”
Roy Piper makes his wine on Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, and although the winery was shut down for several days, he continued to work. He said he tested his wine in the fermentation tank for smoke taint levels, but it was “way below any detectable levels.” He added he picked grapes on Pritchard Hill on Oct. 17 and the smoke taint tests for those grapes “came in at the lowest level the lab can measure. You could smell the smoke on Pritchard Hill every day and sometimes you could see the haze, but it didn’t seem to translate to anything in the wine at this point.”
Beckstoffer said from a grapegrowers’ point of view, his crews delivered over 4,000 tons of grapes to over 130 wineries, and he added, “Nobody rejected any grapes.”
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This year, Russell Bevan said he worked with 137 lots of wine from almost every AVA (American Viticultural Area) and every varietal that is grown in the Napa Valley. Other than juice from two vineyards in the Bennett Valley area and one on the far side of Atlas Peak that “smelled like an ashtray,” he said, “I didn’t have a single vineyard that we detected smoke taint on.”
He added, “I think in the long run, in the vineyards that had contact with smoke for a long period of time, the leaves pulled the compounds in and that got rushed to the grapes. There’s where we’re going to see the problem. There wasn’t a lot of that in Napa and most of the grapes were getting picked during the fire because it was close (to being ripe) already.”
Growing season heat
Enough about smoke taint. Now, let’s talk about the heat of the growing season, when there were five days of 105 degrees in June and ended with a near-record heat spike in early September, when temperatures reached 113 degrees in downtown St. Helena.
Bevan, again: “Correct me if I’m wrong, we had more days over 107 degrees than any vintage in the last 50 years. It was a torcher.” But, he added, “If you had the way to control the heat you were OK.”
The story of the 2017 vintage is about the heat and the rains we got in the winter, which ended five years of drought. The water in the soil led to vigorous growth in the vines and in their canopies. Bevan said the vintage should have been an “absolute mess” because of the incredible heat and he said a couple of his dry farmed vineyards were a mess.
But, he added, if you look at the vineyards that were farmed correctly, with growers using shade cloth, misters and sprinklers to keep the grapes cool on those hot days, the grapes will produce wines that are “absolutely fabulous.”
“This is one of the most seductive vintages in the press pan in the last seven years. The textures are decadent and rich and the glycerines are high. We’re going to have some fabulous, sexy wines” for 2017. Bevan said the October fires are going to be a huge footnote, but quality-wise, it is just a footnote.
“It doesn’t dictate the vintage,” he said. “The heat dictates the vintage and how aggressive and intellectual you were on your farming practices.”
Water used to mitigate heat
Bevan’s farming practices include running overhead sprinklers for 30 minutes on every block, every two hours on days that it was hotter than 98 degrees. “We were putting water on the vines for four days in advance” of heat spikes, he added. “I will tell you it sounds like I used a lot of water, but I am a water minimalist. To mitigate heat, water is an unbelievable tool.”
Using the water to keep the grapes and vines cool allowed the sugars to accumulate very slowly, from 22.9 to 26.2, in a six-week period from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15, when the grapes were picked.
Beckstoffer said that after the Labor Day heat, the cabernet grape clusters were looser with smaller berries, without a climb in sugar, which means a lower level of alcohol, which he appreciates. At the same time, the flavors developed early and the winemakers decided to pick the grapes earlier rather than later.
“We picked a lot of grapes at 25 to 26 Brix, and usually it’s 27 to 28,” he said.
Smith said he thought the Labor Day heat was going to be problematic for the cabernet sauvignon grapes, but it wasn’t.
“Wow, this is really interesting,” he said, “The flavors are there, the acids held pretty well and the sugars didn’t go through the roof.”
Why? He thinks of two reasons: the water in the soil, and thus in the vines, and he suspects the plants just shut down for a while.
“The thing about the heat is that it played an important factor, but not necessarily a negative factor,” Beckstoffer said. “In a year, if you had water and managed the grapes properly, the heat was a factor in whatever the wines turn out to be, but it’s not necessarily negative.
“I’m a great proponent of less alcohol in the wines and if that turns out to be the fact, all the flavors in the wine with less alcohol, then I think that’s fantastic.”