2 years after the hazy, chaotic days of the 2020 white wine harvest, a season bookended by stretching wildfires, some Napa Valley wine makers are bring out an unexpected announcement: They made wine in 2020. And they’re proud of it.Not simply any winemakers. Some of the wineries that prepare to launch 2020 red wines in the coming months include some of Napa’s– even the world’s– most elite, consisting of Harlan Estate, Spottswoode Winery, Dominus Estate, Corison Winery and Eisele Vineyard.
The existence of these high-end Napa red wines plainly contradicts the narrative that began to circulate during the fall of 2020, when many wineries stated that they would not be making any wine that year. The factor: They feared their wines had been spoiled by smoke taint, a phenomenon in which ambient wildfire smoke can nestle inside grapes hanging on the vine, imparting unpleasantly smoky flavors that are challenging to remove from the resulting red wine. At its worst, smoke taint can make a Cabernet taste like an ashtray.
With two major fires in Napa that year– the LNU Lightning Complex fire in August, followed by the Glass Fire in September– the entire valley remained in a monthslong state of panic. Had the pervasive smoke, which sat thick in the air above numerous vineyards, irrevocably damaged their grapes? Nobody understood for sure, and with countless wineries all asking the exact same concern, the labs that can evaluate for smoke substances were supported for months.
“We did not switch on the crusher in 2020,” stated Elias Fernandez, wine maker at Shafer Vineyards in Napa, referring to the piece of equipment that crushes grapes after they’re chosen. “Recalling, it was the best thing we ever did to protect our stability and our brand name.”
Firemens at the Glass Fire in Calistoga on Sept. 29, 2020. Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle Fernandez’s technique seemed, for a time, to be the dominating wisdom among high-end Napa Valley estates– the sorts of places that sell bottles for$ 200 or more and can not manage to release an item that’s anything less than spectacular. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many of Napa Valley’s wineries won’t be offering 2020 white wines, several industry experts approximate it to be more than half.
Yet it’s now clear that 2020 was not, in reality, a lost vintage. I tasted dozens of soon-to-be-sold 2020 Napa reds while reporting this story. Practically all, to my palate, are without smoke taint.
If these red wines are inspiring regret in some winemakers who crossed out an entire year’s worth of income, they must likewise instill hope. Even in a season wrecked by wildfires– and 2020 certainly won’t be the last one– it might still be possible to make good red wine in California.
“If we weren’t contaminated,” stated Tod Mostero, the winemaker at Dominus Estate, “then there were plenty of others that weren’t contaminated.”
Smoke taint is a frustratingly opaque topic, still improperly comprehended by researchers. Essentially, when smoke is in the air, specific substances can make their way into grape skins. However what’s difficult to grasp “is that it’s not a direct relationship,” stated Anita Oberholster, a UC Davis researcher. “Just because someone has smoke at their vineyard doesn’t imply they will have smoke taint.” Various factors like the land’s topography, the wind direction and the freshness of the smoke can figure out the ultimate impact.
Confusingly, “distance to fire is actually not a great indicator,” said Oberholster.
Not surprising that, then, that few winemakers knew what to do in 2020. The harvest season got off to an ominous start that year on Aug. 17, when a dry lightning siege ignited fires throughout California. A lightning strike in eastern Napa County paved the way to the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which would eventually damage almost 1,500 structures.
On the morning of Aug. 17, Helene Mingot was out in the rows of the Eisele Vineyard in Calistoga, where she’s been the wine maker for the last decade. It was her team’s very first day of harvest, and they were selecting Sauvignon Blanc grapes. By 7 a.m., Mingot might smell the smoke, which was rising south and east of her, simply beyond the Vaca Mountains.
Wine Maker Helene Mingot inside the caves at Eisele Vineyard
. Mingot made red white wines in 2020. Her bottles sell for as much as$ 450. Salgu Wissmath/The Chronicle The LNU Lightning Complex would continue to burn for weeks, though the wind was moving eastward, toward Vacaville, far from Napa Valley. Throughout that time, Mingot, like all the winemakers around her, was on high alert. She did what all her peers did: She sent samples of her grapes to laboratories– in her case, in France, because she could not get real-time info from any U.S. lab– to test for the existence of smoke substances. And Mingot carried out “microferments” at the winery, producing small batches of red wine to see whether any smokiness might be tasted. (Some smoke substances do not end up being perceptible till after fermentation.) As she waited impatiently for the outcomes, Mingot proceeded with the harvest as she typically would. “The essential thing, I felt, was not to panic, however simply to stay rational and systematic,” she said. Ultimately, her evaluations of the microferments and the lab arises from France persuaded Mingot that the smoke from the LNU Lightning Complex had not infected her wines, consisting of the flagship Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which costs $450. All around her, other winemakers were making the very same estimations. Mostero, at Dominus, was likewise concerned, “but we never thought about not collecting,” he said. But as increasingly more winemakers came out and revealed they were picking not to make red wine, Mostero thinks, “the terror spread.” Hazy skies over a vineyard on Napa
. Mingot made red white wines in 2020. Her bottles sell for as much as$ 450. Salgu Wissmath/The Chronicle The LNU Lightning Complex would continue to burn for weeks, though the wind was moving eastward, toward Vacaville, far from Napa Valley. Throughout that time, Mingot, like all the winemakers around her, was on high alert. She did what all her peers did: She sent samples of her grapes to laboratories– in her case, in France, because she could not get real-time info from any U.S. lab– to test for the existence of smoke substances. And Mingot carried out “microferments” at the winery, producing small batches of red wine to see whether any smokiness might be tasted. (Some smoke substances do not end up being perceptible till after fermentation.)
As she waited impatiently for the outcomes, Mingot proceeded with the harvest as she typically would. “The essential thing, I felt, was not to panic, however simply to stay rational and systematic,” she said.
Ultimately, her evaluations of the microferments and the lab arises from France persuaded Mingot that the smoke from the LNU Lightning Complex had not infected her wines, consisting of the flagship Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which costs $450.
All around her, other winemakers were making the very same estimations. Mostero, at Dominus, was likewise concerned, “but we never thought about not collecting,” he said. But as increasingly more winemakers came out and revealed they were picking not to make red wine, Mostero thinks, “the terror spread.”
Hazy skies over a vineyard on Napa
Valley’s Howell Mountain on Oct. 1, 2020. Brittany Hosea-Small/Special to The Chronicle Could that contagious panic have led some wineries to desert grapes on the vine that might have stood a chance? “The takeaway we’re all learning,” said Sam Kaplan, who made 2020 wines for Arkenstone and Keepsake Mori wineries, “is that there were some other elements impacting people’s decisions, like market understanding.”
The calculus shifted yet once again on Sept. 27, with the break out of the Glass Fire, which would show even more harmful within Napa Valley, eventually harming more than 30 wineries. Anyone who had averted smoke taint from the LNU Lightning Complex now had to consider a totally new, and perhaps more devastating, element.
The majority of the wineries that are now releasing 2020 red wines had, by pure possibility, gathered their last grapes before the Glass Fire began. Winemaker Cory Empting had selected all the grapes for Harlan, Promontory and Bond estates by the end of August. Mingot ended up at Eisele on Sept. 24; Mostero at Dominus on the 27th. Kaplan had made a point of picking the last grapes at Arkenstone on Sept. 26, because he didn’t wish to work on his birthday the following day. That choice showed prescient for the white wines, although Arkenstone’s home wound up engulfed in flames; Kaplan spent his birthday assisting firemens combat the blaze.
Winemaker Peter Heitz had actually collected about 70% of his fruit for Turnbull White wine Cellars, in Oakville, by the time of the Glass Fire. Regardless of his worries that the fruit had actually been destroyed by the LNU Lightning Complex– he had strategies to offer it off in bulk– he discovered it tasted excellent. However anything that remained on the vine throughout the Glass Fire, he said, was visibly smoky. That final 30%, Heitz stated, “I sold to a company for $1 a gallon that wanted to utilize it for barbecue sauce.”
Winemaker Aron Weinkauf tastes fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon white wines at Spottswoode Winery in St. Helena.John Storey/Special to the Chronicle There are couple of known solutions for smoke-tainted grapes, though some processes
like reverse osmosis and charcoal purification have shown promise. One winemaker, Jason Moulton at St. Helena’s Whitehall Lane Winery, came up with his own service: soaking his grapes in water that had been treated with ozone, a powerful sanitizer. (Ozone can be utilized to deodorize smoke substances in a cars and truck or a home.)He found this to be successful, transforming grapes that had actually been covered in ash into white wine that tasted, to him, smoke-free. These wineries were the lucky ones. It’s undeniable that some vineyards were affected by
smoke taint in 2020, even those that were gathered prior to the Glass Fire. Many properties near the break out of the LNU Lightning Complex, in the valley’s eastern hillsides, could not get away the worst-case circumstance. Fernandez, of Shafer Vineyards, in the Stags Leap District, is among those wine makers who has no lingering doubts about the viability of a 2020 vintage. If he had to decide once again, Fernandez stated, “I ‘d make it much faster.”For others, cash decided. Wineries that buy grapes from farmers, instead of utilize vineyards they own themselves, as well as wine makers who pay to use shared wine making facilities, may not have actually wished to front all that cash to make red wine of questionable quality. Lots of farmers had insurance plan that would pay out only if wine makers declined the fruit, so in some cases a wine maker was doing a farmer a favor by letting the grapes hang. Still, some Napa wine makers now harbor remorse.< photo class= "image deferred threeTwo "data-width=" 2048"data-height ="1294" data-progressive= "true"data-component="image
“> The LNU Lightning Complex, seen here near St. Helena
‘s Lake Hennessey, on Aug. 18, 2020. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle “In retrospection, couldI have fermented some things?” said Jean Hoeflinger, an expert wine maker who works for dozens of brands consisting of AxR and
Pope Valley Winery.”Most likely. In hindsight, I would most likely have attempted to negotiate differently with some growers.”There was one specific vineyard in Oakville, Hoeflinger now believes, that”might have worked.” The issue, he continued, is that there’s little space for mistake when you’re making red wine at the high cost point that lots of Napa wineries do, like the ones he works for. A little smoke taint in a$15 bottle might not be as offending as in a$ 250 one. Now, when Hoeflinger looks at the lineup of highly respectable wineries that are happily selling their 2020s,”my very first response is that I need to trust them, “he stated. These aren’t the sort of estates that would run the risk of putting out something that might taint their name. The following Napa Valley wineries will be launching red white wines from the 2020 vintage. Arkenstone Vineyards B Cellars Bell Wine Cellars Bond Red wine Bouchaine Vineyards Bougetz Cellars Corison Winery Crosby Roamann Davies Vineyards Dominus Estate Eisele Vineyard Gibbs Vineyards Grand Napa Vineyards Grgich Hills Estate Harlan Estate Inglenook Winery Keenan Winery
Larkmead Vineyards Lewis Cellars Lobo Wines MacDonald Vineyards Malk Family Vineyards Matthew Bruno White Wines Memento Mori Winery Patent Red wines Promontory Wine Quilt Red wines Spottswoode Winery Stags Leap Red Wine Cellars
Sullivan Rutherford Estate The Vice
Wine Tres Sabores Winery Trois Noix Red Wines Turnbull Wine Cellars Whitehall Lane Winery See More Collapse Could there be smoke substances hiding in these 2020 red wines that are hitting the marketplace?
Extremely potentially. A few of these very same substances happen naturally in red wine grapes in low volumes. Toasted oak barrels can impart them, too. A little smokiness in a red wine can be tasty.”At low levels they provide excellent, complicated scents,” Oberholster
that will help the market improve its response when there is a smoke concern, such as anti-smoke sprays that could be applied to grapes. Resources for developing those tools is on the method: UC Davis will receive$1.2 million in federal financing for smoke-taint research study, and a costs has been introduced in the California state legislature that would reserve additional funding. In the meantime, these 2020 red wines will always be a suggestion of their distinctively tough vintage, for much better or even worse. “I don’t discover that 2020 is a really fun story as a wine maker and a farmer,”said Heitz, of Turnbull.”White wine is a time capsule. Who wants to go back to 2020? It was COVID, it was smoky, it wasn’t an easy year.”He continued,”The wines I made, I really like. But I don’t revel in 2020.” Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior white wine critic. Email: [email protected]!.?.!