The fires that tore across Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in October 2017, also known as the Northern California Firestorm, dealt a harrowing blow to one of the most renowned wine producing regions in the world. And though many vineyards were spared from the direct flames due to their layout of neat well-spaced rows, the Diablo Winds still pushed clouds of noxious smoke through the vines.
“I could look out my window and see two or three different fires burning at any given time, day or night,” says Sarah Stierch, a journalist, photographer and wine expert living in downtown Sonoma, California, who was on the ground when wildfires tore through wine country. “There were chunks of ash falling from the sky. And when I say ‘chunks,’ I mean, not like little drops of snow. They were like pieces of paper.”
As such, the quality of the surviving 2017 crop has been called into question.
“There were people really harvesting during the fire,” says Stierch. “It’s still going to be some time before we see how that affects the actual grape of the vintage.”
The smoke from surrounding fires may have been absorbed through the grape’s skin on contact, and the resulting ashy flavor could possibly go unnoticed until well into the fermentation process, at which time artificial yeasts (which have the potential to rob the vintage of any distinct taste), would have to be added to correct the changes in flavor brought on by smoke damage.
The good news is that these harvests weren’t widespread, and, in fact, most of the 2017 crop was already in fermentation tanks, according to Stierch.
Patrick Norton, general manager of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based J&G Steakhouse, a Wine Spectator Best of Excellence award winner since 2009, is similarly hopeful.
“Fortunately for us, much of the wine that we will buy now into 2018 was not affected, as it was off the vine or already bottled from previous vintages,” says Norton.
However, California wine country wasn’t the only corner of the wine world affected by adverse weather conditions which have the potential to impact the quality and pricing of wine in the future. French wineries expect the smallest harvests in 36 years after a late spring frost destroyed many of the existing vines, and warmer temperatures over the course of the growing season pushed harvesting back.
While a late harvest may open the door for crop damage, the warm weather also creates dry soil and low moisture conditions, which are perfect for harvest. In fact, many wineries expect the smaller crop to yield a strong, albeit limited, vintage.
In other words, the results will be mixed.
“I think there will be those [vineyards] who will need the price increases, and those who may have needed them in the past, who will feel less unsure about raising prices now,” says Norton.
As for the vineyards and staff affected by the Northern California Firestorm, Norton says: “There are a few vineyards on our wine list that were affected. We wish them, and the ones we have not purchased before, Godspeed in their recoveries.”
Stierch is confident the community will bounce back. “It’s still gorgeous here. We’re trying to be positive. We want people to visit because we live here and we love it.”
Want to support Sonoma winemakers? Stierch recommends taking a look at these smaller producers.
Donelan Wines – “Their winery actually was shockingly unscathed, despite being super close to the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed nearby Coffey Park. The family did lose one of their estate vineyards to the fire. Family-owned, amazing wine, love their syrahs.”
Passaggio Wines – “Did not suffer any fire damage. Super duper small producer. Owner/winemaker Cindy Cosco is a former law enforcement officer who quit to pursue her dream of making wine. She’s maybe one of the best white wine producers right now.”
Corner 103 – “Unscathed by the fires, but some of their vineyards were in the burn zone, thankfully serving as firewalls. They offer an amazing food and wine pairing (only $40) and make wine from throughout the county, great way to taste the diverse terroir of Sonoma County. Only one restaurant carries their wine right now – the famous girl & the fig in downtown Sonoma. Only African American-owned winery in Sonoma Valley.”
Paradise Ridge – “Their Santa Rosa, hillside winery and tasting room (best views in the area!) was tragically destroyed in its entirety in the Tubbs Fire, within minutes. They have a small tasting room in Kenwood, in Sonoma Valley, too. They make great reds and sparkling wines. Family-owned.”
Korbin Kameron – “Family-owned winery on Moon Mountain. Part of their estate vineyard and some out buildings were destroyed in fire. Great maker of big reds – merlot, blends. Also one of few Asian-American winemakers.”