Don’t Judge North California’s 2017 Vintage Too Soon!

The devastation and loss for Northern California’s wine country last week due to wildfires throughout Napa and Sonoma counties are beyond comparison within our wine world. According to the City of Napa, this chaos is liable to go on for weeks. As a resident of Napa town, I have witnessed as well as experienced firsthand the fear and anxiety caused by the encroaching fires, mandatory evacuations of wine regions and community neighborhoods and the heartache the fast-moving infernos have left in their wake. The Napa office of Robert Parker Wine Advocate has been closed due to the Atlas Peak fire and our employees are working remotely until further notice. All affected by the fires in this area have had to make-do with periodic losses of electricity, gas, major and minor road closures, dwindling resources and smoke everywhere. 

Making great wine under the conditions I have just described is difficult, but it is not impossible. The other key point that our greater, global wine trade needs to understand is that apart from stress and worry about friends, family and colleagues, some wineries in this area have thus far had little or no impact from the fires. This includes most of Sonoma Coast, much of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and, on the Napa side, most of St. Helena, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville and Yountville. I recently reached out to some of the very best winemakers and winery managers in various areas throughout Napa Valley and Sonoma County to find out their status and how they are managing their 2017 harvests. 

Andy Smith at DuMOL reports from Sonoma, “The Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast have luckily escaped any real problems, short of some lightly smoky skies. The last few mornings in Graton/Occidental we’ve had light coastal fog intrusion, very cold temps and clear skies. Our harvest was completed before the fires...our final pick was three days before the fires began. All Chardonnay and Pinot vineyards were harvested between 8/21 and 9/19. In fact, most were picked before the Labor Day heatwave, which seems like months ago now. At the winery in Windsor we lost gas supply, so no glycol cooling or hot water, but power has been on all the time. At this early stage, I think 2017 is a very promising vintage, actually lower in alcohol than 2016, very good acidity and highly aromatic wines.”

Adam Lee from Siduri, also based in Sonoma, reported: “Actually, we had just harvested the last of our 2017 fruit when the fires started. So, we are in good shape there. We did have horrific devastation around the winery—neighborhood after neighborhood completely wiped out—but somehow the winery survived. We went a couple of days without power—no punchdowns, temperature control, etc. We’ve got a generator hooked up now, and I think all will be okay.”

Paul Hobbs of Paul Hobbs Winery, based in Sonoma and producing wines from vineyards in Sonoma and Napa, told me, “We had ~78% of the harvest complete for Paul Hobbs and CrossBarn pre-fire—100% of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in, 48% of Bordeaux varietals harvested, including all our top vineyard designate Beckstoffer and Nathan Coombs lots. Quality of all pre-harvested fruit is outstanding. Wineries experienced no interruptions in any vital resources and, hence, stayed on pace with all work...didn’t miss a beat. Older vintage wines in bulk (bbls, tanks, etc.) and 2017 fermenting must or new wines are not at any risk whatsoever. All remaining fruit was in the cue to come this week when the fires struck. We currently have Cab hanging from Oakville to Coombsville and also on Moon Mountain and in the Alexander Valley.  We resumed harvesting this morning—a four-day lapse because we could not get crews...i.e., poor air quality dangerous for workers, equipment destroyed by fire, etc. Of the remaining unharvested vineyards, all have incurred some level of smoke. Yesterday, I sampled fruit from our unpicked vineyards. In some cases, I could taste the smoke when tasting the berries, and I could detect the smell of smoke on my hands from just handling the fruit in vineyard. I brought all samples back to the winery where the air quality yesterday was excellent and asked team members to rate the level of smoke they detected by smell in the container. It was remarkable how consistent the ratings were among the five tasters. Regrettably, all samples had a detectable level of smoke...the least being Alexander Valley. How this translates in the wine is unknown. We’ll keep everything separate as [we] would regardless and evaluate. We are now in the process of harvesting and making wine from all post fire fruit. As you know, smoke volatiles adhere to the waxy coat of the berry so it cannot be washed off.” 

And Ted Lemon from Littorai gives a characteristically succinct summary from his Sonoma Coast neck of the woods: “Completely unaffected. All in tank well before the fires. Hope you and yours are safe. Our heart goes out to all.”
On the other side of the Mayacamas, in Napa Valley, Christopher Carpenter, chief winemaker at Lokoya, La Jota and Cardinale, on Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and in Oakville, respectively, reported: “2017 is still a go as far as I am concerned. When the firestorm hit we were just under one-half done. We have a generator here that we utilized to keep control of the fermentations after the power went out. We had picked Sunday night and stored that fruit for a day, and fortunately for us, at Cardinale the power rebooted on Tuesday and we were able to crush with minimal worry. Our rock star maintenance team was on it as far as the generator, and then were able to put together a washing system that we installed to clean the grapes as they move into the winery, hopefully decreasing the ash that goes into the tanks. Both my vineyard and winery staff want to work and want to make the best possible wines. We are being very cautious on how we approach that work by evaluating the air quality, wearing proper masks and eyewear and obviously being aware of our proximity to fire. We will have to look at smoke taint and how it may or may not affect the grapes for this second half fruit, as the literature has various opinions on how smoke affects different varieties, different stages of grape ripening and the various fermentation and post-fermentation treatments we can utilize.” 

Meanwhile, Don Weaver reported on behalf of Harlan Estate, in Oakville, saying that “95% of Harlan Estate fruit was ‘in the barn’ before the fires broke out. We finished picking the balance today and are pleased by what we see. Cory and his team in the vineyard and winery have done amazing things under challenging conditions. Any success we have this year will be a testament to our site and the team’s thoughtful philosophy and approach to farming. It also helps that we can draw from our standing labor forces from BOND, Promontory and The Napa Valley Reserve. We don’t presume that the last grapes over the scales will show ill effects of smoke taint, but time will tell. No worries, either, about smoke affecting the wines in our barrel cellar. It’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort to be sure. We are particularly grateful for our local fire department and the combined forces that have kept us safe thus far. That said, we are not all clear just yet, as the fire continues to creep closer. But I am reminded that often the best outcomes stem from adversity.”

Tod Mostero at Dominus and Ulysses in Yountville stated, “We finished harvesting both Dominus and Ulysses on October 3rd. At this point, we have been able to continue working ‘normally’ in the cellar (with a generator on Monday when power went out). For the moment, our staff is safe and only one employee, living in Calistoga, has been evacuated. We are remaining vigilant as the fires progress around the Valley and are thinking about our friends, neighbors and colleagues who have suffered immeasurable losses.”

“St. Helena is in a sort of doughnut hole, surrounded by the three wine country fires, which are all at a somewhat comfortable distance at the moment,” mentioned Cathy Corison of Corison Winery in St. Helena. “High winds could change that at any moment, so we’re keeping a close eye on the weather. Mostly heartbroken for all the people who haven’t been so fortunate.” She went on to explain, “My grapes had been in for weeks when the fires hit. I tasted through everything and am delighted with the inky, aromatic, delicious wines. They are all resting in barrel and ticking through malolactic fermentation. Power was out at the winery for one day. We worked by headlamp on Monday, but had power and water back first thing Tuesday morning. We’re racking our Kronos Vineyard Cabernet, the last lot, to barrel today! It’s important to remember that most of the wineries and vineyards in the Napa Valley are fine, and the 2017 harvest was mostly in when the fires hit. It turns out that vineyards make very good firebreaks!”

Garen Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard in Rutherford told me, “We were 90%+ complete in reds, and 100% in Chardonnay and Sangiovese before the fires. We have not lost power at any time, so all pumpovers and other fermentation requirements are all 100%. Being 100% underground in our 24,000 foot caves is proving to be important for lack of smoke, ash, etc., coming anywhere near the wines. 2016 is fully protected at 60 degrees and 80% humidity in the caves. We are very optimistic about the 2017 vintage (and 2016), although it will be a lower-yielding year.”

Finally, Brenton Dodd from Treasury Wine Estates, a major player encompassing multiple wineries and pulling fruit from throughout the affected area, replied: “Treasury Wine Estates is continuing to focus on ensuring that all of our employees are safe and accounted for, with the continued changing conditions in the region. At this stage, the great news is we can confirm that the Stags’ Leap Winery and tasting room, including the Manor House, were not damaged by the fire, and the infrastructure remains intact. Additionally, we are able to share that Chateau St. Jean sustained only minor damage to an out-building, with cosmetic and landscaping damage. Our tasting rooms and wineries are currently closed, and will remain closed until we are sure they can safely open again. We are grateful for the outstanding efforts of the first responders and crews facing the fires, and we wish for their safety. As with all wineries and business in the region, our thoughts are with the Napa and Sonoma community that have been impacted. The team is fairly busy still managing the incident, as conditions are changing hourly, and evacuations zones are still being broadcasted. Overall, Stags’ Leap and Chateau St. Jean Wineries are still standing and relatively unscathed through the heroic efforts of our local, regional and national first responders.”

And so, I urge consumers and the trade not to judge the Napa Valley and Sonoma County 2017 vintage until the wines have been tasted. There is an amazing wealth of resourceful, tenacious and incredibly dedicated winemaking teams here that are committed to producing wines of quality, even given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in some cases. Going forward, these wine communities will need all the help they can get to get back on their feet. Apart from donations to relief funds, the best thing wine lovers and trade supporters can do is to continue to believe in the abilities of the wineries that they love and follow here in Northern California and suspend judgments on this vintage for now. On October 31st, will be publishing Part 1 of this year’s Napa Valley coverage, including my takes on the 2014, 2015 and 2016 vintages, an overview of the 2017 growing season and around 1,000 tasting notes on this region’s new releases.

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