North Bay wildfires cloud wine grape harvest as total losses could approach $500 million
Images of destruction from the Glass fire around the northern Napa Valley vividly depicted the peril in some of the nation’s premier wine grape vineyards.
In all, more than a dozen wineries in the valley, where grape-planted land sells for as much as $1 million an acre, sustained property damage and singed grapevines as of Friday.
Furthermore, billowing smoke there, following the August Walbridge inferno in Sonoma County and Hennessey blaze in Napa, combined to effectively bring annual grape harvesting to a standstill for most Wine Country vintners. A few remain scrambling to do final picks in a season supposed to go through October but marred by fire.
Pat Roney, chief executive officer of Vintage Wine Estates of Santa Rosa, owner of local wineries including B.R. Cohn, Clos Pegase, Girard, Viansa and Windsor Vineyards put it bluntly: “I think harvest is largely over.”
In Napa Valley, home to more than 500 wineries, the meandering and mercurial nature of the Glass wildfire did leave many premium wineries largely unscathed.
“We’re pretty thrilled,” said Matthew Owings, chief financial officer of Rombauer Vineyards along Silverado Trail.
Owings surveyed the grounds of the family-owned estate on Tuesday and saw only surrounding underbrush charred. Buildings were left intact, while nearby Chateau Boswell Winery, a notable St. Helena producer of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, was gutted.
“The last five years, a lot of people have spent a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of energy thinking through how you fight a fire,” Owings said of the North Coast wine industry.
That focus on wildfires will continue as vintners continue assessing property damage. Meanwhile, the regional wine sector is grappling with an even more widespread and significant problem that’s put the industry into a state of tumult: tons of smoke-damaged grapes certain to result in millions of dollars in losses for growers and great uncertainty for winemakers about how much of the 2020 harvested crop can be reliably used to make wine.
The financial cost of the smoke — with its odors and affect on the taste of wine often described as a wet ashtray or like medicinal fumes — will not be fully tallied until next year, but losses are mounting because of three wildland blazes.
By the end of last week, about 85% of the entire Sonoma County grape crop was picked, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group. In Napa County, there was still cabernet grapes — the most valuable variety in the United States that without fire can fetch $8,000 a ton — being picked, but at steep discounts and with no guarantee it can be sold.
A key unanswered question now is how much of this year’s Sonoma County wine grape crop, in terms of acres and total dollars, will be labeled casualties of smoke taint?
What’s certain is the infernos sparked in mid-August by a rare lightning siege in the region, then the Glass fire following on their heels, will have a momentous effect — expected to be hundreds of millions of dollars — on a crop valued at $1.7 billion in 2019 in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.
Before the smoke and flames, the annual grape harvest already was looking about 10% below normal prior to the first picks in early August, said Brian Clements, a partner at Turrentine Brokerage, a wine and grape brokerage in Novato.
As a worst-case scenario, Clements thinks the crop value could be down another 20% this year from its historical average because of smoke taint. That overall amount would be a $473 million loss over the past five-year average. Over the past decade, the North Coast has yielded almost 488,000 tons of wine grapes a year.
“I have been in the wine business for 30 years and I have never seen anything like this,” Clements said of the infamous 2020 harvest.
Lost harvest in Petaluma
The effect of the smoke was evident on a hill in east Petaluma, where Charles and Diana Karren walked along rows of their 50-acre Terra de Promissio vineyard one late September morning surveying pinot noir grapes.
The couple saw shriveled fruit hanging from the vines. None of the grapes were picked. They were left there for their insurance agent to verify the entire crop was a casualty of smoke taint from fires. Thick smoke had permeated the thin skins of their pinot noir grapes and made the coveted fruit — typically the highest valued grape in Sonoma County — worthless.
In a typical annual harvest, the Karrens would sell the pristine grapes to some of the local wine sector’s top winemakers such as Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell and Dutcher Crossing. They and other growers fetched almost $4,000 a ton last year for the popular pinot grapes known for high acidity and fruit-forward notes.