In a year when more than 200,000 Americans died because of a rampant virus; when thousands of homes, lives, and businesses were destroyed by wildfires, and when normal life nationally was shattered by wide-ranging weather catastrophes, a bad vintage in wine country might seem trivial.
Although 2020 might seem to be the nadir year in California’s wine history, the reality is that what we see today is just the denouement of a horrific decade – one that pessimists might suggest is just the start of a long, arduous period of recovery.
It may not get any worse, but what lies ahead ain’t gonna be a picnic.
It’s hard to know where to start, there are so many sad stories affecting almost every aspect of wine industry culture, business, and lore.
Loss is everywhere. From the damage and destruction to numerous wineries due to fires between 2008 and today; the virus’ impact on both viticulture and enology operations; the loss of wine sales in normal channels; the closure of restaurant dining, and the fires’ influence on wine sales, almost no one benefited.
The most recent impact of wine country fires is the massive amount of smoke and ash that assaulted thousands of acres of grapevines. The conflagrations left behind a pall of smoke that ruined vast amounts of fruit that cannot be made into wine because of the fear of what’s called smoke taint.
This devastation first was evident a decade ago in some wines from Mendocino County that were made after the 2008 fires. Most winemakers harvested carefully, using only fruit they believed had “clean” aromas, unaffected by the fires. But some wines were ruined nonetheless.
While the wines were fermenting and aging in barrels, many smelled fine. But as they were being bottled, some displayed smoked, burnt, ashy aromas. Most wineries either discarded the wines or dropped prices drastically.
(One Pinot Noir made to sell for $35 was dropped to $7 and sold only at the winery. Winery visitors were advised in advance that some people might not sense the smoke.)
After the 2008 debacle, as well as bush fires that ravaged South African (2017) and Australian (2019) vineyards, numerous industry scientists began to search for systems to remove smoked aromas. Nothing has worked perfectly. Many tactics are still being explored, mostly without success.
With no sure way to treat smoke-affected grapes, many in Napa and Sonoma counties have decided to reduce their production in 2020, using only fruit harvested before the fires began. Some fruit has been left on the vine.
The only good news: The 2020 harvest was earlier than normal, so roughly half of the fruit in Napa and more than 75% of the fruit in Sonoma County was already harvested before the fires began.
Some of the worst-hit areas in Napa Valley were hillsides. Lost were four-decade-old Chateau Boswell, Cain Cellars and historic Burgess Cellars, which started life in the early 1940s (!) as Lee Steward’s iconic Souverain of Rutherford.
Sonoma County suffered its greatest losses not in wineries but in vineyards, notably in cooler areas such as Russian River Valley that specialize in Pinot Noir. A lot of precious Russian River Valley PN was lost when wineries chose not to risk making smoke-tainted wine.
In many cases throughout the county, growers and wineries opted to take crop insurance settlements.
Pinot Noir in the new Petaluma Gap appellation was less affected by smoke than other areas, although vines at the upper (eastern) edge of the region near Sonoma Mountain were so affected by smoke drift that one winemaker said he would forego making any wine this year.
“My streak of making wine every vintage will end at 30,” he said.
In talking with winemakers from both Napa and Sonoma, I have heard many tear-jerking as well as heartwarming stories of life this challenging vintage, some of which have nothing to do with either fires or the virus.
After all the stories are told, I see mostly wrinkled brows on people who have no clue how life in wine country will be in the coming years as they try to stay in business.
Some spoke of difficulties they envision because of all the bad press this vintage has gotten. It reminds me of what occurred after heavy rains deluged grapevines during the 1989 harvest. One magazine headline called the 1989 harvest “The vintage from hell,” thus devastating wine sales – even though many of the wines turned out to be exemplary.
Of all the tales I have heard this year:
“I still have a lot of wine that we made the last three years (2017, 2018, and 2019), so I’ll work on selling that. But if I have no wine in 2020, what then?”
“My major concern is my bank… and my line of credit.”
One winery owner said he was being pressured to accept lower prices from his wholesaler. “What they’re offering, well, I didn’t get into this business to lose money.”
One winemaker told me, “Everyone is hurting. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of wineries are gonna be sold within the next year.”
One factor that could also negatively impact California wineries relates to French imports.
For now, French wines face tariffs imposed by the Trump administration that make imports slightly more expensive. However, if those tariffs end, French wine imports will become even stronger competition.
In the midst of all this, growers and winemakers in most wine regions in California remain wary of the inevitability of climate change issues that not only make every vintage a dicey proposition, but long-term threaten to change the styles of wines to which most Americans have become accustomed.
Incremental warming, even just seemingly small changes, more rapidly increases sugar accumulation. This forces grape maturity levels out of normal ranges, with some grapes picked without sufficient on-the-vine ripening of aromatics and flavors.
Several solutions to this on a short-term basis have been tried, and they seem to work – with one drawback: they are more expensive to use. Which leads to smaller profit margins.
A commonly used phrase for perfect vision is 20-20. As a year, however, 2020 will be remembered not for clarity but for murkiness.
Wine of the Week
2019 Famille Perrin Côtes du Rhône Réserve (Blanc) ($12) — Honeysuckle and notes of guava and other tropical fruits mark the attractive nose of this youthful, fresh blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Rousanne, and Viognier (which adds a delicate spice note). Excellent acid balance. A delightful bargain from the owners of Chateau de Beaucastel. It is widely available at $10 or less.
Watch now: Repeat wildfires ruining grapes in Napa Valley
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.