As the wildfires continue in California, compelling stories abound: many lives lost, homes demolished and wineries devastated by the wildfires. It will take much more time to know the extent of the damage. There's one part of the story that may seem less dire, but it’s an important next question: what will it mean for the harvest?
For the winery and vineyard owners, winemakers, and everyone employed by the wine industry, any loss of wine matters. Some wineries lost whole vintages, while others lost buildings, vines and homes. Many still don't know. The damage will affect jobs and tourism — a $7.2 billion industry last year alone — but the fires also represent a staggering loss of hard work, too, as the impact on the land starts to become more clear.
It's too early to know exactly how the wines from this year's almost-finished harvest will be affected. I received information from the California Wine Institute and spoke to a winemaker to find out what the possible damages may be.
There is some good news
The harvest in the affected regions is about 90 percent finished. That means the majority of the grapes have already been picked. The grapes are in fermenters or have finished fermentation and are in the early stages of the aging process.
But for those grapes that have not been picked, will they be affected by the smoke?
A finished wine can show signs of smoke taint if the grapes have come in contact with smoke under the right circumstances. There are volatile phenols in smoke residue, according to Washington State University. When glycosylated forms of these phenols accumulate in the skin and the pulp of the grape, they don't show up immediately. You could pop the grape in your mouth and probably not notice anything smoky.
However, the compounds get released during alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, and smoke taint shows up in the wine with flavors that can be described as dirty, ash tray, camp fire, burnt, or medicinal. The smoke taint also makes it more difficult to smell the aromas of the fruit in the wine.
Smoke taint is not expected to be a problem for the grapes remaining on the vines in the affected regions, though. Smoke needs to linger for days before it can have any impact on grapes in the vineyards, and these wildfires — and the smoke that accompanies them — are moving fast because of strong winds. Smoke is not having an opportunity to linger in the vineyards.
What is mostly left on the vines are thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which are fully developed and ready to be picked. Winemakers connected to the California Wine Institute are saying smoke taint won't be a factor in the 2017 wines. They don't think wine in the fermenters or in bottles will be impacted by smoke.
Access to the vineyards is still an issue
Gaining access to the grapes in the field or to wines that are in the middle of fermentation will be a problem at some wineries. Power outages or the inability of employees to report to work can obviously hinder production, however many wineries have emergency generators to help maintain production.
"Fermentations that can't be accessed may be a problem," said Larry Sharrott Jr. of Sharrott Winery in New Jersey when we spoke about the wildfires. "You have to feed ferments."
At certain times, nutrients — or as Sharrott called them, "multivitamins" — are added to fermenting wine based on factors like sugar content. Without access to the fermenting wine, these nutrients may not get added at the correct times. A lot of fermentation monitoring is computerized now. Frustratingly, winemakers may be able to see from a computer program that the fermenting wine needs attention, but they simply can't get to it. In those cases, there may be a loss of wines that are currently fermenting.
A reputation to uphold
California wine has a well-deserved reputation for quality. In a press release, the Napa Valley Vintners noted that it's too soon to tell how the fires and related challenges will impact this year's vintage overall, but "no matter the circumstances, our winemakers remain committed to upholding Napa Valley's reputation for making some of the world's finest wines, and they will do everything possible to ensure the highest quality winemaking for the rest of the 2017 vintage."
I imagine this sentiment is echoed by the other wine regions in California affected by the wildfires. But first, they need to focus on creating some order out of the wildfire chaos.