Monday, October 16, 2017

More Thoughts on the Wine Country Fires


In the coming days you will see countless press releases and articles that will talk about how the malevolent fires in California’s wine country this past week have, for the most part, not ruined the wines. This is true. As I write, the fires still burn; and parts of the vineyard up the road from me, owned by Simi (Constellation), were being picked this morning. There were grape trucks everywhere as I drove into town. Yet it’s true that the vast majority of vineyards, estimates run around 90%, were harvested before the fires started on October 8th. Wineries here are nervous that the wines produced this year will be written off, or devalued. This seems stupidly paranoid to me. And the constant nattering of pundits and marketing types talking about how the fires had little effect will probably have the opposite of the intended effect—the constant repetition will make people, in the long run, skeptical. Like when they told you there’s no way Trump can win. This isn’t exactly the Age of Truth-Telling.

From my own personal point of view, 2017 is a cursed vintage. Let's not forget the year started with Inauguration Day. Then there was an astonishing Labor Day weekend of back-to-back 116 degree days here in Healdsburg. And now the wildfires. All season long, as they do every year, visitors have asked me, “How’s the vintage look?” I always say the same thing, “Anything can happen. It’s not over till it’s over. Everything about growing grapes hinges on luck and weather.” We’ve had little luck and bizarre weather. But the wines will be fine, in some cases, damned fine. Emphasis on “damned.”

I think this is the first important vintage of Climate Change. I mean that from a psychological point of view, not a factual point of view. I’ll never think of vintage 2017 as anything but cursed and prophetic. And not just here in Northern California. Before their harvest, Chile damn near burned to the ground. As I write, there are uncontrolled wildfires in Galicia and in Portugal. Bordeaux suffered terrible frosts in the spring. I haven’t smelled fresh air in a week here in California’s best wine country. The punishment we’ve given the planet the last hundred years is coming back to haunt us. Some of the best winemakers in the world have been running for their lives the past week, and that’s not because they got lousy scores in Wine Advocate. Pieces I’ve written in the past year, I’m thinking of “Climate Change Cellars” and “Wine Critics in Hell,” as well as a few others, aren’t that funny anymore. Well, if they ever were.

Above all, let’s remember that these sepulchral fires affected the residents here far more than the vineyards. To put it bluntly, more people here burned than vineyards. Who cares what the vintage will be like? Oh, goody, Harlan Estate didn’t burn down! Wouldn’t want their mailing list to be upset, maybe not have a vintage for their vertical. Yes, I know, wine is big business here, employs a lot of people, generates monumental amounts of tourist dollars. But it’s the people who are employed in the business who are now suffering, unable to find a place to live, without much money, without much hope. I promise you, not a single one of them is thinking about how the wines will turn out. And this is now the way of the world. Please come here and visit! Or go out and buy a bottle of Sonoma County or Napa Valley wine. Buy a case! Hey, I know, buy a Natural Wine from here, it was, after all, a Natural Disaster. We need you, we need your money and your support. As New Orleans did, as New York did, as Houston does. As your town will, too, one day. Think we’re not all in this together? You’re an imbecile.

It was breathtakingly gorgeous here today. Some smoke around, as there will be for weeks, but it was warm and beautiful. But I wasn’t where the fires had been. I don’t have the heart. I nearly lived there.


Bob Henry said...

Let me repost this comment, as the URL has changed.

Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section
(April 1, 2010, Page A1ff):

“Sipping These Wines Is Like Smoking And Drinking at the Same Time;
Forest Fires Taint the Pinot Noir;
Trying to Filter Out the ‘Wet Ashtray’ Taste”


By Ben Worthen
Staff Reporter

"In wine vernacular, 'smoky bacon' is a prized flavor for pinot noir. Not so is 'wet ashtray,' which is where the powdered sturgeon bladders come in.

"The 2008 pinot noirs from here in California's Anderson Valley are starting to show up in stores. But severe forest fires during the growing season hit the grape crop that year. The fires left much of the resulting wine with 'smoke taint,' according to many local winemakers, a condition similar to that in a 'corked' bottle in which one unwanted taste overwhelms everything else."

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Your usual worthless link.

This comment has virtually no relevance to the situation. The 2008 Mendocino fires were in August, before harvest. The fires here were mid-October, when the vast majority of the fruit had already been picked. Detectable smoke taint will be very rare in the 2017s, believe me. In reality, it's a pretty good year.

This is damned near irresponsible, Bob. We know what smoke taint wines are like. Is this really helpful or insightful? If so, how? If anybody read my blog, I'd be upset.

Mike Dunne said...

Very little wine from the 2017 vintage will suffer smoke taint, and that that will will be marketed as a novelty wine, perhaps to raise funds to help the homeless and displaced get resettled. If no winery takes positive advantage of this opportunity, I'll be surprised. More likely, some enterprising winery will have to explain to retailers and restaurateurs that, sorry, but our smoke-tainted benefit wine is on allocation. Talk about a breath of fresh air.

Mel Knox said...


Your comment about this being the first obvious climate change harvest is spot on.
Look at Burgundy and Bordeaux since 1988 and you will see that all their problems are what used to be unique to warmer climes....false spring followed by frost, sunburn, etc.

2008 is an interesting comparison, because the fires took place during veraison...when they say grapes can really pick up smoke taint, but this year we have cabernet harvest in the Napa Valley at the same time as the fire. Other than smoke taint, I see other issues for this year's cab crop, because many could not pick because they could not get near their vineyards, because the pickers lost their homes, because the winemakers lost their homes, because they could not process the fruit because they had no power etc etc etc.

Of course, everything but the Bordeaux red varieties and maybe some Zin was tucked into bed a while back.

Of course, bringing in the issue of climate change is in poor taste, just as raising the issue of gun control is in poor taste after 50+ people lose their lives to a gun crazed accountant.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of taints, when will Blinky tell us how to think?

2014 was the earthquake vintage in Napa. It’s brought up on occasion but hardly used as a marketing tool from what I have seen. Who wants to be reminded of a disaster every time they open a bottle. It’s like O.J. ordering a bottle of The Prisoner.

Bob Henry said...


If 90% of the harvest has been picked, then that leaves 10% on the vines.

10% is not an insignificant percentage.

Is there a potential problem here?

Read the comments of Anita Oberholster, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis, as reported by CNBC:


Unknown said...

I think a lot of winemakers got just what they wanted in their Cab... dehydration and 27 or 28 bricks... yummy.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Does the word "could" mean anything to you? "Could yield." I "could" win a MacArthur Genius Grant. You "could" have a personality. Pinot grigio "could" make great wine.

Honestly, I wish you'd just stay away from here. You're the very definition of tone deaf. Go bother Blinky.

I'd delete your comments, but I don't do that. I'm accused of it, but I don't. But stop.

I'm not in the mood. And don't send me a PM either.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Every vintage has its problems. You know that better than I. The 2008 Pinot Noirs from Mendocino were undrinkable. That won't happen this year in Napa or Sonoma. Winemakers and wineries went to heroic, even risky, lengths to see their fermentations and harvests through. What will the wines be like? Who knows? Will they be undrinkable. Nope.

Climate change isn't imaginary. Only stupid people think that. But I know smart people who are unwilling to assign specific natural disasters to climate change--hurricanes, wildfires, floods--as though that will change the facts. Were these wildfires a product of climate change? Maybe not these, who the hell knows. But are wildfires getting worse and more frequent and more destructive because of climate change? How do you say "No" to that question.

Easy, google "Lies about Climate Change."

Unknown said...

Another good post. It is not about most of us wineries/vineyards. It is about the people in our counties. They are hurting and need all the help they can get. We lost some crop from the fires, and it sucks. But not like my daughter in law and grand son loosing everything they own and their home. We will recover, mother nature willing.

Unknown said...

Had to laugh at your Bob Henry comment.. ha ha. amidst all the doom and gloom thought it'd be fun to try and inject a little levity.. one of the Insider questions, is your favorite music... this chef said, the Grateful Dead. I wrote Clunk. Told him this joke, what does a first timer at a Dead concert say when the the drugs wear off, This music sucks!! And he laughed his head off...

Unknown said...

This is what Anita Oberholster said before the media got involved:

Charlie Olken said...

I am not sure what all the fuss is about. We know that most of the crop is in, and we know that most wineries were able to function sufficiently to keep their fermentations going in near to desired fashion. We forget that exceptional wine was made four and more decades ago with far less tight control than we have now. I am not saying that winemakers who had to forego pumpovers or keep their cooling systems going at 100% desired temperatures are going to have it easy.

We know, for instance, that Hagafen had tanks out back that cooked in the heat of the fire. One assumes that the winery will figure out what to do with that juice--even if they have to abandon it.

Smoke taint will be a concern, but it is an understood phenomenon, and those wineries with batches that have suffered should do a good job of keeping those batches out of their wines. But, just as in 2008, there will be the occasional ash-tray wine.

Ultimately, the telling of the impacts will be done by the buying/tasting public when the wines are put in bottle. Until then, "could" is the operative word, and it is not the dominant operative word for most of the wine from Napa and Sonoma.

Beentheredonethat! said...

Lets not forget the 40 plus, great grandmothers/fathers,grandmothers/fathers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters who are no longer with us. Makes wine a little inconsequential don't you think?

David said...

Dear Ron

First of all: I am glad to hear that you are safe.

I am so saddened to hear the terrible news of deaths and whole neighbourhoods that have been wiped out by the swift firestorms. Unnerving, unforgiving and terrifying are just three words that cannot justify what has happened. To think that such a disaster would be what (probably briefly) brought back the HoseMaster is even more disheartening. I was secretly hoping that what eventually might bring your writing back to the endless void of the wineblogbiz would be an idea or two that were so ludicrous and weird that even Tim would not publish them, and you wouldn't be able to resist writing them...

When people have lost all including homes, loved ones, friend and even lives, wine becomes insignificant as a fart in the woods - no one (apart from the weird vinomedia) cares for whether the last 10 % will be lesser quality or not. I personally believe that if the taint is there, it should stay there to remind everybody what matters and what terrible year 2017 was. To be frank, I think we need a wine to remind those who cannot look past the next bottle of wine that something tragic happened. That wine really doesn't matter if it does not reflect the vintage and the people that produced it - and that there are much more important issues in this world.

I am sorry for rambling away, but I got really angry when I read the first reports on "the vintage is safe" before the loss of life, homes and friends was mentioned...

Stay safe and true to your thoughts,


David said...

PS - I still believe that in the face of terror, we really need to be able to joke about it to live - so even if some posts might seem gruelling now, don't delete them just yet. Greetings from Denmark.

Kurt Burris said...

Hi Ron: I still think Wine Critics in hell is funny

Unknown said...

Unfortunately along with helping our friends, family, and displaced folks staying in our homes (we have had a constant rotation ourselves through waves of evacuation orders) many residents here in the business are indeed also thinking about the fruit still on the vine as well as the juice going through ferment. There are a significant number of wineries that were/are without power and did not have access to their facilities or the backup generators required to get their temperature control equipment running for example. More than smoke taint I believe there will be a loss of quality due to unmonitored fermentations progressing in some cases for over a week without pump overs, punch downs, nutrient adds, or any of the tools a winemaker uses to keep those yeast happy that turn our fruit to wine. For my family members in the business they were lucky to have access to the winery most of the time and backup power which allowed them to take care of trouble ferments with the crew available, but I know many in Sonoma Valley and other places have not been so lucky. Right now there is a struggle to get a handle on all of these while bringing in the ripe fruit as quickly as possible so that the 2017 vintage is remembered for success through pulling together and the industry can continue to thrive, grow, and create more jobs for those who have lost everything.

Unknown said...

Before I started my plan to work I was reading this exchanges...Remain strong and back to work. Best to you all.

VinoNovato said...

Glad you are OK and continuing to bite and scratch away on deserving topics and people, love it.

You have just highlighted two serious subjects which have surfaced in familiar circles.

How many more freakish climate phenomenon must be endured before those in power stop snorting the Koch Bro$ influence. Damn Citizens United and enlighten those dumbass, short-sighted Americans. Hope our massive smoke is the signal--they can see it in space!

We postponed dinner with friends in SF to have them join us in Sonoma Wine Country to spend much needed visitor bucks.

You are right on the money, again. Hear, hear!

Amy Christine said...

Wait. Pinot Grigio can make good wine?

I completely agree that this vintage is the first vintage where climate change presented itself so blatantly. The drought and three years of early harvests in 14, 15 and 16 could have been flukes, but... they weren't. This year during harvest in Lompoc the daytime temp was as high as 104 and high 90s several days in a row. LOMPOC. Lompoc is 55 degrees on a good day. (Ok, maybe a slight exaggeration, but I sleep in a down jacket in the Lompoc house so I feel like I have the right to say that.) Good thing the EPA is looking out for us.

Godspeed to all. I, for one, am looking forward to tasting the wines of this vintage! I have not drunk much Napa or Sonoma wine in recent years. I plan to change that. Maybe tonight.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Amy Darling,
Oh great, now I have an MW agreeing with me. This explains why I quit. Wait, I guess I didn't quit after all. One bad day and I come right back to annoying people on my blog.

You sleep in a down jacket? Don't they make down lingerie? Hey, I think I'm on to something. Next up, "Shark Tank."

Everybody's talking about smoke taint, and no one's whispering, "We're all Modesto now." Sheesh. Everybody's talking out their taint.