Longtime Sonoma County vintners reflect on this year’s harrowing harvest
With major fires burning through Sonoma County earlier this year than in the past, starting at the onset of the grape harvest, smoke taint has become a substantial concern for farmers.
Sonoma County grape growers whose families have farmed the land for more than 50 years said this harvest is like nothing they’ve experienced before. When wildfires sparked in October 2017 in Wine Country, growers already had picked most of their fruit. Not so this year, with the Walbridge fire lighting up in August, catching them off guard at the start of picking and exposing most of their crops to smoke. Now the Glass fire, which began last week, threatens to bring an early end to harvest.
Growers are waiting weeks for labs to determine whether their grapes have smoke taint, and some are considering getting crop insurance for the first time.
Four Sonoma County grape-growing families — the Sangiacomos, the Pellegrinis, the Pedroncellis and the Serres — talk about what they’re up against and say they plan to persevere, despite the relatively modern challenges of smoke taint and fire. “Farming,” said Taylor Serres of Serres Ranch, “is in our blood.”
“Our nerves have been tested through decades of harvests, but the one this year stretched the limits,” said Steve Sangiacomo, a third-generation partner in his family’s Sonoma-based business.
The Sangiacomos began this harvest with 5,300 tons of grapes on the vine. At the onset of the mid-August wildfires, they still had 4,300 tons on the vines yet to pick.
“We have dealt with difficult harvests, but the smoke issue was something that really left us defenseless,” Sangiacomo said. “Our only real experience was in 2017, when 95% of our grapes were picked.”
Sangiacomo, 45, said his grandparents began their farming business in 1927. Today the family farms 1,600 acres spread across 14 ranches. They predominately grow chardonnay and pinot noir and sell 99% of their grapes, reserving 1% for their Sangiacomo Family Wines label, which had its first vintage in 2016.
“We sell to over 50 wineries, and 15 rejected our pinot noir grapes,” Sangiacomo said. “We are aligned with our winery clients to not make wine from any affected grapes from smoke. Quality is of the upmost importance, and we won’t compromise.”
But pinpointing smoke taint is time-consuming, Sangiacomo said. Because so many grapes in Sonoma County have been exposed to smoke, the labs have a backlog of samples to test.
“We have over 10 samples out and we won’t get them back for a month,” Sangiacomo said.
While smoke taint isn’t harmful when ingested, some describe the taste as ranging from wet ashes to medicine.
Even though uncertainty is the only thing Sangiacomo is certain of, he said his family is fully committed to grape growing.
“We are analyzing every facet of our business to see how we can be better prepared for all the unpredictable happenings, with smoke being an urgent focus,” he said. “We will definitely consider buying higher levels of crop insurance. But we are committed to farming through thick and thin. We realize there will be ups and downs, cycles and new weather issues.”
“This was the first time we had active smoke exposure in memory,” said Julie Pedroncelli St. John, a third-generation co-vintner of the Geyserville family operation. “The previous years (of fires in 2017 and 2019), we had finished with harvesting. It was definitely hard to imagine a year with fire season starting so early, especially amid COVID-19. A double challenge.”
The Pedroncellis had 660 tons on the vine before harvest began and 440 tons after the mid-August wildfires.
Pedroncelli St. John, 60, said her grandparents also founded their business in 1927. Today the family farms 120 acres, with 11 varietals, weighted to red grapes. All the grapes are reserved for the family’s Pedroncelli label. In addition, they began the harvest with eight contracts to buy additional fruit. They already have rejected half of those contracts.
The growers have six samples at the lab but won’t get test results for three weeks.
Pedroncelli St. John said the jury is still out on the 2020 vintage.
“Smoke damage is certainly a concern, but it’s just too early to determine how much, if any, damage occurred, and it depends on where the vineyards are,” she said.
“We’re going to test the finished wines and then determine our course for the 2020 vintage.”
The family has no crop insurance but now might consider it. And they’ll stay, Pedroncelli St. John said.
“With the winery tied to our grapes, we have no plans on leaving. Four generations, 93 years and we will continue growing grapes despite the challenges. We still believe this is one of the best places to grow wine grapes.”
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