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Sonoma County grape growers expect wildfire smoke damage to cost at least $152 million

Sonoma County wine grape growers are expecting to lose at least $152 million from this year’s harvest as a result of fruit damaged by wildfire smoke, a local trade group for the sector said Tuesday.

A survey by Sonoma County Winegrowers estimated up to 30% of the 2020 crop was left unpicked on the vines because of smoke, which can seep into the grape skins and make wine taste like a wet ashtray.

The annual grape harvest that began at the beginning of August ended early after being devastated by heavy smoke from several wildland blazes, particularly the Walbridge and Glass fires.

At least 70% of local farmers said they had fruit that was rejected as the grapes showed appearances of chemicals linked to smoke taint. The yearly county crop typically averaged between 200,000 to 210,000 tons in recent harvests.

That volume is expected to decline by at least 50,000 tons this year due to smoke taint, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

“That is a big financial hit to Sonoma County,” said Kruse, whose group represents growers and the industry’s workforce of 6,200 full-time workers and 1,300 seasonal employees. “It starts in the vineyard and on the ground and moves through a process into a bottle and then shared experience and into our tourist experience.”

In 2019, the Sonoma County wine grape crop was valued at about $630 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new local survey confirms recent reporting by The Press Democrat about the predicted 2020 crop loss. Overall, North Coast growers in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties could lose $473 million from this harvest based on a five-year average of the value of the grape crop.

Thanks to a mid-August heat spike, most of the white grapes were harvested before the fire smoke blanketed the region. Grapes for sparkling wine also were picked early and averted damage.

“We harvested all of our chardonnay this year. I think that can be said for most in Sonoma County,” said Steve Sangiacomo, a third-generation partner at Sangiacomo Family Vineyards in Sonoma.

Smoke damage is expected to be worst with red varieties such as pinot noir — the most valuable grapes in the county that fetched almost $4,000 a ton on average last year — and others like merlot and syrah.

Some overwhelmed area testing laboratories could not provide quick results in time on tests for suspected chemicals in harvested fruit, thus forcing some winemakers to crush questionable grapes. Those vintners will determine if the wines are susceptible to smoke taint during the fermentation process that will occur next year. No winery will bottle and sell smoky wine because it would greatly harm the company’s reputation.

“We definitely did have people (wineries) that just outright rejected it (grapes) and said, ’This isn’t going to work for us,’ which is hard to accept as a grower,” said Mari Jones, president of Emeritus Vineyards just north of Sebastopol, which has 140 acres of vineyards and also makes its own wines.

We are “very confident” in the wines that will be made from the grapes picked this harvest, Jones said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell

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