Unprecedented harvest in Sonoma, Napa counties comes to a close

Winemakers give us a window into their harvest experience, one with wildfires raging in the midst of a pandemic.|

With smoke engulfing vineyards, one opted not to make wine this year; one created wine in an evacuation zone and another found bringing in the harvest problematic with COVID

A trio of winemakers recap this unprecedented harvest, happening as it did in the midst of a pandemic and against the backdrop of wildfires. Screenwriters couldn’t have imagined a plot more dramatic.

Korbel Winery in Guerneville made wine in an evacuation zone. While Napa’s Domaine Carneros successfully protected itself against the coronavirus, the mere thought of an outbreak practically gave the winemaker nightmares. Meanwhile, after winemakers at Napa’s Shafer Vineyards watched their grapes sit in smoke for days on end, they ultimately decided to forgo producing a 2020 vintage.

Korbel Winery

“Each morning was a different situation being in an evacuation zone, with fire crews staging on the winery grounds,” said Paul Ahvenainen, Korbel director of winemaking. “Our entry permit into the evacuation zone was at the discretion of the Sheriff’s Office or other law enforcement. Sometimes part of the crew could get in and part was turned away.”

Ahvenainen said the Walbridge fire in August hit at the peak of the sparkling harvest.

“We could only pick estate grapes with the entry permit,” he said. “And by the time the evacuation orders were lifted, we were way behind on grapes from outside growers and had a mad rush to bring in already overripe fruit.”

In addition to this year’s challenging pick, harvest rituals had to be modified, causing further disorientation. Typically, the winery has a Labor Day feast for the entire harvest crew. This year everyone ate separately with individual burritos.

“It just isn’t the same as a communal meal,” Ahvenainen said. “I was actually very happy how well everyone worked together this year. In an odd way, I think our challenges brought us closer together, rather than (pushing us) apart.”

The winemaker said the industry has to learn to be nimble with unpredictable times ahead.

“Hopefully we won’t have another pandemic anytime soon, but I think we need to learn to live with a drier climate with more fire risk,” Ahvenainen said. “I’m hopeful that the wine community will get together with our partners at the UC and state colleges and other institutions to mitigate the impact of smoke taint and other challenges.”

Domaine Carneros

“We picked the last of our sparkling grapes the night the fires started in August, so we largely dodged that one,” said winemaker Zak Miller. “But the pandemic was and is extremely challenging. … The additional stress of the possibility of a workplace infection was probably the worst part. That is something we simply can’t afford, due to the amount of work that needs to be done during harvest and fermentation.”

Fortunately, the winemaker said, the winery’s protective measures kept everyone safe from the coronavirus. At harvest lunches, safety was the top priority, Miller said.

“Instead of family-style shared food, we had to order individually wrapped options,” he said. “It was different, but it made me thankful we could still do lunches in this modified way. It’s such a big part of the comradery of harvest, it would have been devastating to morale to not have anything at all.”

While the winemaker considers the pandemic an anomaly, he said he plans to prepare for it in case it persists through the harvest of 2021.

“The fires seem to be an annual predicament at this point,” Miller said. “I believe we need to plan for the worst. Simply put, plan for the worst, hope for the best. Which really is winemaking in a nutshell in any given year. This year just put a new spin on that mentality.”

Shafer Vineyards

“The most challenging part of the year was watching our vineyards sit in smoke, like pea soup, for days and weeks on end from wildfires up and down the state,” said Doug Shafer, winery president. “Then, as a result, having to make the decision to not make any Shafer wine in 2020.”

The winery typically produces 30,000 cases a year and has been making wine since 1978.

“Only once in Shafer’s early years we decided not to release the 1981 cabernet because it didn’t hit a high enough level,” Shafer said.

This year the winery picked the grapes and sold the fruit.

“It was a combination of factors,” Shafer said. “One was lab analysis and another had to do some micro fermentations. Then we had some heart-to-heart chats with friends in the Australian wine industry who have been through this. Ultimately it came down to the fact that we could not guarantee that making wine from these grapes belonged in a Shafer bottle.”

The high-end producer sells its top cabernet sauvignon — the 2016 Hillside Select — for $300.

Opting out of vintage 2020 has left Shafer longing for the aroma of fermenting wine.

“One of the things I love about harvest is the smell of the cellar,” Shafer said. “The incredible aroma of tanks filled with new wine only happens once a year, and it’s always exciting and celebratory.”

Right now safety in this pandemic, Shafer said, continues to be the winery’s number one goal.

“We want everyone to remain healthy,” he said. “Wearing masks, social distancing and washing our hands, basically watching out for each other, is our camaraderie in 2020.”

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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