Talking to winemakers and grape growers during the Premiere Napa Valley weekend the conversation often returned to the destructive 2017 wildfires, the lives lost and the damage done to the region. Beyond wanting to let people know that they were rebuilding and that the wine was still flowing in Napa, there were lingering questions of how the fires would effect the 2017 vintage.
Scars on the landscape remain, but it takes a little bit of looking to see them. Hillsides show charred trees and some wineries that were damaged or destroyed are now active construction sites.
Due to the timing of the fires it was late-ripening varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon that were most likely to be affected. One grape grower said that he had been able to harvest his Petite Sirah, but the Cabernet was a loss. Like other growers, he had workers ready to harvest but they were unable to reach his vineyards because fires made travel in the area impossible.
It wasn’t that the fires burned his vineyard, but rather the Cabernet grapes had been tainted by smoke. Smoke taint is more than just smoke and ash physically getting onto the grapes. It’s a chemical process that happens inside the grape when smoke compounds bond with grape sugars creating unpleasant aromas and flavors.
Smoke taint may not be apparent at harvest, only showing up later during fermentation or even developing years later in the bottle. There are ways to assess if the grapes have been affected and deal with any damage, but some winemakers will be forced to dispose of entire lots.
2017 will be an interesting vintage to keep an eye on. It’s a reminder that even in places like Napa, where their wines have become synonymous with luxury lifestyles, it all begins with farmers working the land. For now the best thing fans of Napa wines can do is continue supporting their favorite wineries. It’s a great time to head out and see it for yourself.
This is a guest post written by Ben, wine manager at Binny’s Hyde Park.