Tucked under the heading of the 2020 growing season summary they released earlier this month, Napa Valley Grapegrowers included an appropriate quote by Brian Brett: “Farming is a profession of hope.”
The Canadian author and poet wrote this in the introduction to his 2009 memoir, “Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life.” If Brett’s observation rings true for farmers in years of normal expectations, the one currently drawing to a close may have gotten winegrowers up and down the valley to go searching for new wells of optimism.
With the effects of August’s LNU Complex fire and, particularly, the devastating Glass Fire in late September yet being felt by growers and winemakers, the jury is still out on the ’20 Napa Valley harvest in terms of potential smoke damage to wine grapes. Unpicked clusters of dark, shriveled fruit dot vineyards from Calistoga to Oak Knoll, all the more visible as leaf canopies fall away with the change of season.
And yet, even though NVG acknowledges in its summary that the fires “exposed varieties to smoke and ash, influencing harvest operations in both the vineyard and cellar,” it’s encouraging to remember that not all Cabernet Sauvignon was abandoned and, furthermore, that plenty of other wines — from sparkling and Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — will be produced from Napa Valley in 2020, since those grapes were mostly picked before the Glass Fire blasted across the valley.
Comparing this past growing season and harvest to another fire-threatened vintage, Schramsberg and Davies Vineyards President Hugh Davies was upbeat.
“I’m actually pleased that not only are we seemingly selling the 2017 Cabernets, our ‘17 Pinot is already gone, and we’re selling the sparkling wines from that year,” the veteran vintner said recently. “We now have enough of a sample size, relative to the marketability of 2017 wines, that it seems to have worked just fine. And I’m thankful for it.”
At that time four harvests ago, the traumatic Atlas Fire cast a shadow of doubt across wine productions from both Napa and Sonoma Counties. But up to now, the earlier concerns voiced by many in the wine and mainstream media have yet to bear fruit.
As the respected wine critic James Suckling wrote on his website in February, he’d tasted more than 1,000 wines from Northern California going back to the fall of last year. “I continue to like the 2017s, especially from Napa Valley. Many have a firmness and drinkability that is so attractive and intriguing.” Such characteristics have emerged, he observed, “despite the troublesome hot weather during the growing season and the devastating fires in October.”
Whether or not Suckling or other critics will offer such a positive assessment of the 2020 vintage remains to be seen. Every growing season and harvest is different. What’s clear is that, because of the Glass Fire — not to mention all of the COVID-19 safety protocols that have been in place for months — the ’20 harvest was, unsurprisingly, both an aberration and a wild ride.
The valley’s grape crop came in at a fraction of what was shaping up during the growing season to be a normal yield of exceptional quality, a fact lamented by NVG Executive Director Jennifer Putnam. “[T]he prospect of a severely reduced harvest or one where no grapes were harvested was sadly realized” by some of its grower members, she summarized.
But for 2020, Davies said he doesn’t predict an issue with the marketability of the Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs that fall under his eponymous label. “Where I do think there’s a challenge is that there’s not going to be much of those wines made.”
On the red wines side of his business, he and his director of winemaking, Sean Thompson, saw a significant drop in production in ’20. For the Schramsberg sparkling wines, which are made from early-picked Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the hit was less severe.
“Sparkling production is down a bit, but that’s because yields were light this year,” Davies wrote in an email. “The sparkling base wine quality is quite good. We’re actually really pleased.
“We’re lucky that Cabernet represents a smaller portion of our overall program,” he added.
When it comes to wildfires and which direction the wind is blowing, both good and bad luck played important roles in the fire events of 2017 and this past September. Vineyard locations and picking dates, meanwhile, are more dependable factors in the pursuit of a successful harvest, even in a year like 2020. A pair of established growers in two of the valley’s coolest area, Carneros and Oak Knoll, can attest to this.
Bill Hanna and his family have hung their hats on Oak Knoll Chardonnay for half a century. They also claim a fascinating lineage. Hanna’s father, John, was the grandson of the naturalist and conservationist John Muir. In 1970, he planted Chardonnay in what would come to be known as the John Muir Hanna Vineyard, at the corner of Dry Creek Road and Orchard Avenue.
The property figures into contemporary California wine history, as it supplied some of the grapes that went into Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay, the top-rated white wine in Steven Spurrier’s Judgment of Paris blind tasting in 1976.
Hanna, his son, Michael, and their vineyard manager, Steve Kline, continue to grow Chardonnay for a number of clients, including Montelena, along with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
“We’re quite proud of the fact that Dad’s vineyard has been in every vintage of Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay,” the elder Hanna wrote in an email last month.
Over the phone more recently, he said with a note of relief in his voice that the 2020 crops of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were picked successfully. Like Schramsberg, Hanna’s clients at Mumm Napa incorporate Pinot Noir into their méthode champenoise wines, and all of that fruit goes to the sparkling wine operation on Silverado Trail.
These successes notwithstanding, he spoke frankly about the challenges of harvesting in the midst of a terrible fire season. When the Glass Fire burned in Napa Valley, “the smoke arrived here sooner, and so anything that was left out hanging, which for us included Cabernet, Cab Franc, and Merlot, was exposed and did show signs of smoke. So, we’re dealing with that,” he confessed.
Then Hanna returned to a happier subject. “All of our Chardonnays were picked. It was after the LNU complex. By all accounts — and we sell to quite a few different buyers — everything is looking rosy in terms of the fruit quality from the Chardonnay.”
As a grower who works land down in Carneros planted by his father, Chris Hyde is a younger version of Bill Hanna. He has been Hyde Vineyards’ General Manager since 2012. Larry Hyde is one of the valley’s most respected growers and in July was named NVG’s Grower of the Year for 2020. He established the now-200-acre property in the early ‘70s, when it was only a third that size. Like the Hannas, Hyde father and son grow grapes for dozens of winery clients.
Their property sits south of Highway 121 opposite the Carneros Resort in the windswept AVA that is Napa Valley’s coolest growing region. Thanks in part to Larry Hyde’s early efforts with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these vines are synonymous with Carneros. They make up the majority of Hyde Vineyards’ ten planted varieties.
Echoing Hugh Davies, Chris Hyde commented over the phone that the ’20 vintage was smaller for their signature wine grapes, but the quality of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir appears to be very high. He and his vineyard team had to work extra hard through both the fires and the coronavirus restrictions to make it happen.
“We’re fortunate that, as an agricultural business, we could continue to operate an essential business. We were able to keep everybody employed,” said Hyde. “We got through this harvest working successfully with our winery partners to get the fruit picked. And, you know, I felt like as a community, everyone really came together.”
With Hyde Vineyards situated in an even cooler location than Oak Knoll, and that much further south and away from the Glass Fire, it allowed for something close to a normal harvest, albeit one still fraught with smoke and a pandemic. 2020 seems to have given Hyde some valuable perspective.
“We got all of our fruit picked and off the vines, and we were able to deliver it. And from everything I’ve tasted so far, we’ve got a great vintage,” he shared. “That being said, we’re looking forward to another year ahead of us. It’s all about planning and looking to the future. That’s really what agricultural farming and what the wine business are all about.”
Only a small fraction of Hyde Vineyards is planted with another vine closely associated with Napa Valley, but Sauvignon Blanc represents a strong bond between the Carneros growers and Spottswoode’s Winemaker and Vineyard Manager, Aron Weinkauf. Even before Weinkauf came on board the esteemed St. Helena estate in 2006, the Novak family were grape clients of the Hydes.
Spottswoode Winery produces one of Napa Valley’s most sought after versions of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a variety typically harvested in August and September, so vintners like Weinkauf were able to bring in their lots of fruit before the Glass Fire began on Sept. 27.
“Our verdict is in,” he said on a phone call, the bearer of more good news about the ’20 harvest. “Our yields are down kind of consistently 20 to 30 percent, but that has nothing to do with the fires. It only has to do with drought and the climate conditions of the growing season. We were lucky enough that we had picked almost 100 percent of our grapes” before that late September date.
These included not just Hyde Vineyards’ and other growers’ Sauvignon Blanc, but nearly all of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties that go into the Spottswoode red wines. Except for a small amount of Lake County fruit, Weinkauf noted, “We were able to bring in everything else before the Glass Fire, which obviously had very close, very serious and direct impacts on us right here.”
He was careful to point out that owing to their growers’ vineyards’ and their own property’s proximity to the Glass Fire, they had finished samples of all of their wines lab-tested for smoke damage. The results brought the winemaker joy and relief. “I literally wrote all of our growers as of like a week and a half ago telling them the good news that we got the numbers back, and we’re clean. We’re making the wines.”
With several weeks of hindsight, Weinkauf has had a chance to consider his colleagues’ varying responses to the Glass Fire. They consisted, in part, of growers and winemakers deciding to leave fruit hanging on the vines for justifiable fear of smoke damage. “People were really just going about this every possible way they could think of, and there were a lot of people who came out and said that they are not making wine.”
He continued, “You know, I don’t want to pretend to know the circumstances of every other winery, but I absolutely know there were a lot of people in a position like us and just said, ‘Yeah, we’re bringing the grapes in. We’re going to treat things normally, but we’re going to be working with all of our growers in every situation. And then we’re going to test everything as thoroughly as we can afterward and hopefully make a decision based on real results instead of predictions.’”
“The fact that 2017 happened, and now ’20 has happened to us, it gives pause,” Hugh Davies observed of the last four harvests’ outcomes. “On the flip side of that, ’18 and ’19 were pretty successful. So, I think we have to take the hits in stride. And this whole COVID thing, no one asked for it.
“There are going to be good years and bad years. There are going to be tough moments. I think that we just have to try to be strong and work our way through these more challenging moments. There are definitely better days ahead.”
Meanwhile, if the Canadian author Brian Brett is a wine enthusiast, his hope for 2021 and the future of Napa Valley viticulture might just spring eternal.
WATCH NOW: MONICA FLORES, A REGISTERED NURSE AT ADVENTIST HEALTH ST. HELENA, GETS HER COVID-19 VACCINATION.
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