Harvest 2020: A Tale of Two Cities

Fire season has a mixed impact on Santa Clara Valley winemakers

HARVEST SEASON Denise Besson of Besson Family Vineyards picks pinot grapes at the Gilroy ranch. Photo courtesy of Besson Family Vineyards.

Harvest has been relatively painless for some in the Santa Clara Valley. For others, it’s been painfully difficult. It’s all a matter of where grapes are sourced. Most of Santa Clara Valley escaped the scourge of smoke, but other grape-growing regions weren’t so lucky.

French-born winemaker Christian Roguenant of Lightpost Cellars confessed, “This is the worst harvest in my career—the worst since 1984 in France. It rained every day during harvest. The fruit was so moldy, you had to wear a mask.”

The good news is that he and owner Sofia Fedotova decided to make sparkling, and had already picked Chardonnay and Pinot for that program before the August fires erupted. While they were unable to obtain grapes from several Pinot vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains due to smoke taint, other vineyards came through for them.

“We did get some Pinot Noir fruit from another newly planted vineyard in Santa Cruz which looks beautiful and it does not appear that we will have an issue there,” Fedotova said. “Our production scaled back for 2020 vintage as we have plenty of wine right now in the barrels and these are looking wonderful. We are really excited, as these are truly great wines. We are about to bottle 2018 vintage in a month. We age most of our reds for 24 months in a barrel.”

Longtime Santa Clara grapegrowers, the Besson family sees a bountiful, taint-free harvest. The first beautiful big bunches of Pinot Noir were picked back in early September from the ranch where George Besson lives. His daughter, Denise Besson, said they picked Chardonnay and Zinfandel the fourth week of September. It looked amazing.

Assistant Winemaker Niklas Zorn of Guglielmo Winery was wrapping up picks of the last of the estate Cabernet, Grignolino and Carignan in early October. They had already picked Zin, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Sagrantino, Sangiovese, Barbera, Dolcetto plus some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Chalone.

“So far no smoke taint coming through, although we are on the lookout,” Zorn said. “Testing I have seen from parts of Alexander Valley and Chalone are clean, while other winemakers I am in contact with have been rejecting fruit and trying to figure out what to do. It is making the bulk market go a bit crazy.”

He was very excited about their first Arneis, sourced from Paso Robles, and was looking forward to the Nebbiolo they source from the same region.

“Hopefully smoke taint won’t be a factor in what we have decided to bring in, but I believe we are very lucky compared to other areas that have lost buildings/fruit,” Zorn said.

Church Creek first brought in estate Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc from a neighboring vineyard. Winemaker Carl Barsody reported they picked Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and some Sangiovese at the beginning of October, observing, “Plenty of fruit this year.” Not everyone would concur, especially those counting on fruit from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, which were hard hit by fires.

One of those being winegrower Geoff Mace of Calerrain, who admitted, “Toughest harvest yet, honestly. Being a dad of two small children that are home from school has been so challenging.  I end up working early morning hours, getting home for school and then dragging the kids to the winery until the evening. They are troopers, though. I’ve got all our Chardonnay and Pinot in. Had to skip SLH this year, which is disappointing for us and the grower. So sad what is happening up north. These fires are just too much.”

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Laura Ness is an accomplished freelance writer offering travel tips and commentary on the California wine industry.