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Wildfires Spared the Vineyards, but the Wines Could Suffer

Aside from the wine, tourism is what the industry depends on, as do all the peripheral components — restaurants, hotels, spas, tour guides — that exist to offer a glimpse of what the pioneering winemaker Robert Mondavi used to call “the good life.” October and November are peak months for Napa and Sonoma, a time when tourists flock to the region, visiting wineries to taste and, often, to enter into long-term relationships as customers.

Tres Sabores, a small winery tucked into the hills in the Rutherford Bench area of Napa Valley, depends on tours and visitors for its business. It has had more than 250 cancellations through November, a scenario repeated throughout the region, said Julie Johnson, the owner. “My team is losing tasting fees, sales, tips, commissions, wages – it’s a lot,” she said. “How can I provide for my team? That’s the thought in my head.”

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Fire destroyed the family home at Gundlach Bundschu. Jeff Bundschu was able to persuade his father to leave the house before it burned down.

Credit
Talia Herman for The New York Times

Jeff Bundschu, whose family has owned Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma Valley since the mid-19th century, says visitors make up 20 percent of his winery’s business, more if they join the wine club and become regular customers. Yet Mr. Bundschu, who had to persuade his father to leave his house behind the winery before it burned down, says he is more concerned at the moment with the well-being of his 96 employees and the community at large. Like many in the area, he is trying to organize a fund-raiser.

“We have a couple of weeks when the world is interested in us, and then the next disaster will strike and we’ll be on our own,” he said.

A dozen or so winemaking facilities were damaged or destroyed by the fires in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, most notably Signorello Estate and White Rock Vineyards in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. But structures can be rebuilt in far less time than the years it would take for a newly planted vineyard to become productive.

A less tangible concern is that the roiling smoke that hovered over the region could somehow damage grapes that were not yet harvested.

Initial reports after the fires began suggested that much of the vintage had already been harvested. That was true of the white grapes. But many fine-wine producers in Napa and Sonoma still had red grapes hanging — particularly those for the riper, more voluptuous style that dominate in California, especially in Napa Valley. For many producers, as much as 30 percent of their Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, and Rhône grapes like grenache, had yet to be harvested.

Many producers had planned to pick these grapes just when the fires arrived, and then were unable to do so. As a result, many of those grapes were potentially susceptible to smoke taint, which can leave wine with an unpleasant, ashy flavor.-

One thing is clear: A perception among consumers that the 2017 vintage is tainted would be bad for business, leading some producers to avoid discussing whether they still had grapes on the vines.

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From left, Max, Phil and Sam Coturri at their vineyard in Sonoma. Max Coturri, a local volunteer firefighter, saved a house that had caught fire. Sam Coturri has hired a crisis counselor to help with the 100 vineyard management employees.

Credit
Talia Herman for The New York Times

“I think more people picked before the fire than say they were at Woodstock,” said John Williams, the proprietor of Frog’s Leap Winery, which grows and makes cabernet sauvignon and other wines in Rutherford. “The most researched term on Google right now is ‘smoke taint.’”

Thirty percent of his estate cabernet grapes were still hanging a few days into the fires. Like many other producers, Frog’s Leap is processing the grapes picked after the fires started separately from those harvested before so that any potential taint will be confined.

The issue is more complicated than smoke residue settling on the skins of grapes. The interaction with smoke can cause chemical compounds to form within the grapes. At first, these compounds may be undetectable by taste or smell. They may become volatile during fermentation, or it may not be until much later, months or years, that they become evident.

Winemakers cannot simply wash the grapes. Instead, they send grapes, juice or wine to laboratories, which test for indications of these compounds.

Fear of smoke taint can force changes in winemaking protocols. Frog’s Leap depends on naturally occurring yeast to ferment its red grapes, Mr. Williams said, but manufactured yeast can be purchased that is said to either mask the smoke taint — if it exists — with fruity flavors or curtail the release of the smoky flavors.

In addition, the grapes can be handled more delicately than usual. Ordinarily, Frog’s Leap would pump the fermenting juice over the grape skins regularly to extract as much color, flavor and texture as possible. The skins remain with the juice until fermentation is complete, and then they are pressed to extract a little bit more. But with these grapes, Mr. Williams suggested, Frog’s Leap could do fewer pumpovers and press the skins before fermentation is complete. This might lead to other issues, like a loss of color and flavor.

Still other decisions loom. Producers may decide to use more heavily charred barrels to age these wines. The char will cause the wine to taste more oaky, but, since oak contains the same active compound found in smoke taint, albeit in a more agreeable form, it might mask any potential flaw.

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Grapevines on Jim Bundschu’s winery in Sonoma, CA

Credit
Talia Herman for The New York Times

Ultimately, if a wine proves unsatisfactory, many producers will sell it off, either to be bottled as a proprietary wine for wine clubs or other institutions, or on the bulk-wine market. They will earn something, but not nearly what they would have if they were bottling the wine themselves.

“We’ll have to make hard decisions if we want to make great wines,” Mr. Williams said. “Thirty percent of our cabernet business is a big hit.”

Reminders of the fires are all over the wine country. Wide swatches of umber dirt — fire breaks bulldozed through fields and woods, to cordon the flames off — scar the countryside. The bulldozers have carved up numerous paved mountain roads, their metal tracks leaving ruts that will shake passenger vehicles for some time to come.

Those who lived or worked on the front lines of the fires swap tales of bravery. Sam Coturri, who works with his father, Phil Coturri, a prominent vineyard manager in Sonoma and Napa, and at Sixteen 600, their wine label, spoke of his brother, Max, a local volunteer firefighter who single-handedly saved a house that had caught fire as he was feeding chickens that had been left untended behind the evacuation lines.

Sam Coturri worked to save his parents’ house. With colleagues, he dug a fire break with a backhoe and hosed down the wooden structure. He has hired a crisis counselor to help the 100 vineyard management employees, some of whom lost homes and many of whom are immigrants.

“I’ve always known how much I owe to a largely immigrant work force,” he said. “I learned this week how much of a responsibility I have to them as well.”

As with any agricultural enterprise, the work of making wine must go on regardless of interruptions, even one as profound and traumatic as the fires. “We don’t know the bigger story yet,” Mr. Williams said. “We have to take care of our people, make the best wine we can possibly make and get the vineyards ready for winter.”

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