Hazy harvest begins

Winemakers concerned about wildfire smoke’s impact on 2020 season

HARVEST SOON Sangiovese grapes begin to ripen at Solis Winery. Photo courtesy of Solis Winery

Nobody likes to kick off the harvest season with wildfires ablaze, but such is the continuing series of delights that has marked the year 2020 from the outset. Some local wineries were already cleaning their presses, doing last minute bottling to clear tanks and dragging out their hoses for the long season ahead, when the heat wave struck. And then, that fateful lightning storm of Aug. 16 wreaked havoc across the state, igniting nearly 700 fires.

Dorcich Family Vineyard began picking Sauvignon Blanc on Aug. 19, followed by another pick of Sauvignon Blanc the following week. They expected the next fruit picked to be Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Asked if this was earlier than last year, Marisa Dorcic replied that indeed it was, by a week. As for the impact of the heat wave on the development of the grapes, she said, “These heat waves are becoming the new normal and they are not good for grape vines, especially for white grapes and early red varietals as Pinot Noir.

“Aromas and flavors are getting altered and oxidized. This is something that surely growers need to consider to adjust their growing techniques.”

In light of the dramatic weather events that are shaping everyone’s lives in California, one has to consider adding smoke abatement protocols to the winemaking regimen.

Gina Guglielmo reported that Guglielmo Winery had not yet begun to pick. They planned to start the first week of September, maybe earlier if it stays hot. They expected Zinfandel to be first in. Assistant winemaker Niklas Zorn commented that this was about the same time as last year. 

“The first week of September has become the new normal,” Zorn said. “We even started 30/31 of August in a few more recent years.”

Asked how the heat wave might affect the grapes, Zorn said, “It will certainly speed up our harvest plans. During 2017, we had a massive heat wave the first week of August (highs of 114 or so) and we picked the whole property in a week. Hopefully we will have more time this year. Also, the smoke can have an affect on the grapes’ flavor profile and I hope we do not get any issues this year.”

Avoiding smoke taint is going to be a real challenge this year. Winemaker Geoff Mace of Calerrain gets grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands as well as Paicines. The former has been seriously smoked over due to the River Fire. 

He struck a cautionary note, saying, “I think Paicines will be OK. Generally it takes a pretty direct impact from fresh plumes of smoke to make a difference. I’ll be testing, though. But I wish the testing was more reliable. It is possible to have a negative test but still have smoke taint show up once the fruit is made into wine. Which for a startup like me would be a disaster. So it’s hard to know what to do, frankly.”

Testing labs are already backlogged.

Tim Slater of Sarah’s Vineyard, who also runs Stomping Ground Custom Crush, said, “The heat was punishing for us people and the vines, and we did see some vines struggling and some slight raisining. We had been about two to three weeks behind a ‘typical’ schedule, but now we might be more like a week behind. Not really sure. We are taking samples of Pinot today to get an idea of where we are. When it gets really hot, the vines shut down and the grapes don’t ripen, but the sugar level can shoot up due to raisins forming. When we had that really bad heat wave back in 2017, over 110 degrees, the vines got ‘shocked’ by the heat and didn’t ripen properly for the rest of the season—it was real strange.”

Slater, too, is more worried by the multiple fires impacting several growing regions from which he sources fruit. 

“Next week, we plan to send off samples of grapes from the smokiest areas (Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Lucia Highlands) to verify that there aren’t smoke taint problems, before we start harvesting from our partner vineyards,” he said. “The smoke in our area outside of Gilroy never got very bad so we aren’t worried about the home estate.”

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