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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.”

The Sangiacomos

“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.”

Pedroncelli

“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.”

Pellegrinis

“It seems the entire West Coast has been on fire for the past month, from Seattle to San Diego,” said Alexia Pellegrini, general manager and owner of Pellegrini Olivet Lane. “Since thunderstorms and humidity swept the state mid-August, I have been joking with friends about pivoting into pineapple farming in Kauai. After living through the past 10 months of 2020, that doesn’t sound half bad.”

Pellegrini, 40, is a fourth-generation vintner in her family’s Santa Rosa-based wine business, which has been making wine with Sonoma County-grown grapes since 1925. The Pellegrinis have 60 acres planted, half to chardonnay and half to pinot noir. The family has its own label — Pellegrini — and sells grapes to six to eight other wineries.

When the mid-August fires hit, the family hadn’t begun to harvest their roughly 100 tons of grapes on the vine. They also had eight contracts in place to sell wine, but two were eventually rejected.

“Because of the lack of timely (smoke taint) testing and a foggy understanding of those results, it has been the wild west of winery-generated contract amendments,” Pellegrini said. “Some were amusingly unworkable.”

The upside, she said, has been a bonding between winemakers and wineries through these tough times.

“This challenging harvest has fed a seedy undercurrent, where a low percentage of wineries and growers have expressed a preference for not harvesting mildly smoke-affected grapes and instead claiming insurance.” she said. “A winery that has too much wine in a bottle from previous vintages is more likely to drop a contract when a grower has insurance. And some growers prefer claiming insurance than reselling previously contracted grapes on the spot market.”

Pellegrini said the family never has had crop insurance at Olivet Lane, but she had considered getting insurance before the harvest.

“At this time, I’m unsure if the cost expense outweighs the risk, as our price per ton is far above the county average,” she said.

In the meantime, she’ll stay put.

“I have had the opportunity to work in a number of other fields in my short life, and running a winery in Sonoma County is the place I have chosen to be,” Pellegrini said. “If I didn’t take the reins of the family business or I didn’t care, we would have sold the business.”

Serres

“I was shocked by the wildfires in mid-August, the lightning storms, that crazy weather,” said Taylor Serres, co-vintner of her family-owned Serres Ranch, based in Sonoma.

The family hadn’t begun harvest before the wildfires and had about 500 tons of grapes on the vines.

Serres, 30, is a fifth-generation farmer. Her family has managed the ranch since the late 1870s. Today the ranch is just under 200 acres, with 130 acres planted to red Bordeaux and Italian varietal grapes.

They began harvest with eight contracts, and one has since been rejected.

“We have crop insurance,” Serres said. “My father (John Serres) never really saw the benefit before, but this year he’s all about it.”

Before the family began growing wine grapes, it founded Serres Corp. in 1929. Serres said the general contracting civil engineering company has provided a cushion when there have been setbacks in growing wine grapes over the years. Another option down the line, she added, would be to diversify with other crops.

“You’re not farming to get rich quick,” Serres said. “Mother Nature always throws you curve balls, but you can always figure it out and you come out alive. No matter how smoky it gets, farming is in our blood.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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