Wildfire and fine wine in the USA
Author: Emily Miles
In summer 2020, as the world reeled from the pandemic, another crisis blazed across the western USA. Instagram and Facebook lit up orange and grey as people shared images of devastating wildfires. Eighteen months on, we speak with some of the winemakers who lived and worked through that moment of climate chaos.
Amongst journalists, the phrase “ambulance chaser” is used to dismiss the wrong type of writer. Hacks who spend their time in pursuit of the most sensational story: dealing in shock; bypassing nuance; trading only in the hardest-hitting version of truth.
But the on-the-ground reality of the wildfires which swept across the USA’s western states in 2020 was shocking – no matter how you write it. A quick Google image search returns countless apocalyptic-looking scenes. These are pictures which are every bit as hard to look at as they are to turn away from.
At the time the fires burned, in the midst of the unfolding Covid pandemic, it felt like something was shifting in the balance of the planet. Had climate change passed the point of no return? Was this the future we’d all be facing if global warming continued unchecked? In the drama of the summer, these seemed fair questions. More than a year on – and long after the images of smog-clouded skies have disappeared from our Instagram feeds – the impact of the fires is still being felt.
And the legacy is a complicated one – especially for fine-wine makers. On the one hand, they’re forced to face the economic reality of a year where many of them couldn’t bottle a drop: a whole vintage was wiped out – and that has obvious consequences. But, on the other, they want to put distance between themselves and the ashes. Smoke-taint tarnishes reputations just as quickly as it ruins grapes.
Here, we speak with three eminent producers about their story of the 2020 vintage; about climate change, and about how – more than ever – they’re on a mission to convey sense of place in every drop of wine they produce.
A STATE OF EMERGENCY
On 18th August 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in California. At least 350 fires were blazing, sparked by a thunderstorm. The tinderbox conditions – created by a long heatwave and drought – were exactly what was needed for uncontrollable burning.
During the wildfire season, 1,779,730 hectares of land were hit. Temperatures were also extreme. In mid-August 2020, the National Weather Service recorded the highest-ever temperature on the planet, 54.4°C, at Furnace Creek in California. Further north, Oregon saw one of the most destructive years on record, with half a million hectares burned. The fires caused 42 deaths and destroyed almost 14,000 buildings across the western states.
In the fine-wine world, hectares of precious vines – nurtured through the growing season – were swathed in dank clouds of smoke just before harvest. And the timing couldn’t have been worse: plump and ripe, the grapes’ delicate skins absorbed the complex smoke compounds. The fruit simply couldn’t be used to make high-quality wine.
Even those producers who were fortunate enough to avoid the actual effects of smoke didn’t escape entirely: for them, there remain the challenge of selling wine made in a vintage associated with wildfire. “It was hugely destructive,” says Catriona Felstead MW, our Wine Buyer for the USA. “There were various vineyards lost, but beyond that, the big problem was the smoke taint. There were wines made in 2020, but, for many quality-conscious producers who had smoke over their vines, the only possible decision was to not make any wine.”
Larry Stone is CEO and Founder of Lingua Franca, a winery based in the Eola-Amity Hills in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When we speak one dark February evening, he explains how 2020 wasn’t the first time they’ve been impacted by wildfires, but this time it was a different story. Despite the fact the fires were burning more than 100km away from Larry’s vineyards, strong, zero-humidity winds blew in from the northern Central Plains of Canada, carrying smoke and ash.
These arid winds collided with damp ocean onshore winds, pushing the smoke down into the vineyards. “The wind was so strong,” Larry says. “I’d prewatered my herb garden: it was dried out within an hour. Totally dehydrated – as if someone had taken a flamethrower to it. There was ash and soot everywhere.
“In parts of the Willamette Valley, it was the worst situation possible for about 10 days – right as harvest began. In this area, it was highly damaging to the quality of the fruit. There were little pockets that weren’t as affected. But I knew the harvest was lost. I didn’t even want to pick.
“The reality is, even if we had had a crop that wasn’t affected by smoke, the perception would be otherwise. People would have heard about these catastrophic fires, and wouldn’t want to buy the wine.”
In the hope that more fruit could be saved, Larry sent some borderline samples of Chardonnay from less-affected vineyards for laboratory analysis. “Sure enough, the precursors for smoke taint were so high that there’s no way in hell that even this Chardonnay that smelled and tasted good could not become spoiled,” he says. “Even if you can’t smell the smoke on the fruit, or in the juice, the taint can appear months, or even years, down the line,” Larry explains. “You just know that if you bottle it, it’s going to smell like creosote, so we threw it out. The sad thing is, it was a great harvest in the making. But it doesn’t matter what the economic hit is, we couldn’t sell it as our wine.”
It makes it all the more heartbreaking when you know the Chardonnay and Pinot picked before the fires are amongst the best wines Lingua Franca have ever made – albeit in tiny quantities.
Around 30 minutes’ drive north, mostly on Highway 153, you’ll find the Nicolas-Jay winery. Here, at the top end of the Willamette Valley, Burgundian winemaker Jean-Nicolas Méo and music entrepreneur Jay Boberg farm their Bishop Creek vineyard alongside 53 acres in the Dundee Hills. In summer 2020, fires crept within a couple of miles of their new winery, but the problem – as at Lingua Franca – was the smoke.
“The fire was east of Salem,” Jay explains over a Zoom call. “It started maybe 40 miles away. But it burned for two weeks, and destroyed around 120,000 acres. It was huge. “The Willamette Valley is an octopus – not like Napa, which is more of a snake – with these different canyons in the valley. So a big portion of the smoke was drawn up into the Willamette Valley.
Then there was an inversion layer: it was like someone put a frying pan on top and was holding the smoke down for around eight days. It was just crazy. “We’d harvested some Chardonnay already, and one block of Bishop’s Creek. If not for the smoke, we should have picked 50% of our fruit in those eight days. It was just terrible.”
At Nicolas-Jay, they were able to make some Chardonnay, and some rosé – the wine is produced without skin contact so the smoke compounds aren’t problematic. But as to the rest? For Jay, like so many other makers, it was a question of quality: “I’m sure there’ll be some fine wines made, but we decided that for us, it wasn’t worth it. Even if it was just a small risk that they were going to be spoiled or not representative of what our Pinot Noir should taste like. We just didn’t want to take that risk.”
Head around 950km south of Larry and Jay’s vineyards and you’ll find Colgin Cellars. Founded in 1992, this Napa institution has – over the past three decades – led the way in making wines that showcase not just beautiful fruit, but also incredible and nuanced terroir. From his office in the winery, Paul Roberts, Master Sommelier and President of Colgin, points out a dot on a hillside beyond the winery where, on 17th August 2020, a lightning strike set a fire that was to ruin the winery’s harvest.
“We had about three weeks of smoke; we made close to 100 different micro-ferments between all of our vineyards,” says Paul. “We’d made the decision that there were flaws in the wine. Then, in the second week in September, the smoke trapped a lot of heat, so suddenly it was 43°C.” There was no hope of salvaging the crop.
When you consider that Colgin had to write-off the entire vintage, Paul is surprisingly pragmatic. “Napa Valley makes the most consistently great Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. So we have a fire that burns and destroys crops? Hopefully that’s a once-in-50-year dynamic. The thing here is that we’re consistently able to make great wines. Outside of when we have these heat spikes – which we’ve learned to handle – we have very altruistic weather.
“As long as we don’t have fire and smoke, this is an amazing place to grow grapes for Cabernet Sauvignon and its brethren, our single-vineyard Syrah. Beyond that, it’s up to us to show how they’re all different,” says Paul. The story he, quite rightly, wants to tell about his wines is one of nuance, complexity and terroir.
THE ECONOMICS OF CLIMATE CHAOS
Practically, you’ve got to be in good shape to ride out a year when your income is kyboshed by Mother Nature. And, presumably, you want to be able to mitigate for future years when the same pattern could unfold.
Paul explains how, at Colgin, they were surprisingly prepared with a library of back vintages to draw down on. “Starting with the 2010 vintage, we began in earnest to hold back anywhere from 5% to 20% of the crop. In 2010, we held back 7%; in ’11 we didn’t hold any back because we made 50% less wine. In ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15 even though we’re in this horrendous drought, we were actually getting bountiful crops.
“And the goal was that we were going to start releasing those wines when they were anywhere from 15 to 20 years old. Who would have thought that we would need them as soon as we did? So in ’23 and ’24, we’ll tap into that repository of wine,” says Paul. Similarly, with no red wine to sell from the 2020 vintage, Jay and Jean-Nicolas will be releasing their library wines. “We’re depleting these libraries earlier than we had planned,” Jay explains. “We’ll be using ’15 and ’16 and ’17 not to fill the gap – because we don’t have enough to cover an entire vintage – but at least to get some wine to the UK market. And I think that’ll be great for those drinkers who are all about holding on to wines and dabbling in different vintages. I think it’ll be very interesting.
“You have to accept that fire is going to be a risk. And we can’t really get insurance in a meaningful way, so we just have to build it into our thinking.”
MITIGATING FOR MOTHER NATURE
There is no farmer more in tune with the minutiae of climate conditions, and changing weather patterns, than a grower of fine-wine grapes. They understand the impact of every aspect of place across even the smallest parcel of vines. They also understand the macro: the broader trends that are forcing them to adapt the way they manage their vines.
Jay, Larry and Paul make very different wines, which are entirely specific to their individual terroirs. But when we speak about whether they are adjusting their winemaking in the face of a changing climate, they all have a similar take on the situation. As farmers, they are already well (if not perfectly) adapted to their land; they’re equipped to ride out the known extremes that will come their way; and they’re pragmatic that not every weather event can be catered for.
In the Willamette Valley, a very precise series of climate conditions means that Jay and Larry are in a predictable and sympathetic spot for winemaking. “The Coastal Range is really what allows winemaking to happen in the Willamette Valley,” explains Jay. These mountains form a protective barrier between the ocean and along the west of the valley. “If the mountains weren’t there, it would never get warm enough to ripen grapes,” he says.
Then, there are the essential cooling night-time breezes: “The Van Duzer gap, a low pass in the mountains, allows damp, cool air to flow into the
valley at night-time,” says Jay. “This is what makes it so perfect for Pinot Noir: you’ll get days in the summer where it’ll be in the 90s, but at night it’ll drop by 40°F.” Jay makes a particular cuvée from the Momtazi Vineyard – at 750 feet above sea level, and right next to the Van Duzer Corridor, it is always last to be harvested because of the cooling air it’s exposed to. “It ripens much slower because of this, and it has a really unique flavour profile,” says Jay.
It’s not just in the Momtazi Vineyard that Jay is able to take advantage of current climate conditions. In 2019, he and Jean-Nicolas invested in land on the north side of the Dundee Hills. “The entire Oregon wine region was founded on the south side of the Dundee Hills,” says Jay. “Because it was there they could get the grapes to ripen. We’re on the very highest point of the northern side; and we’ve done that quite consciously,” he says. It’s a very tangible example of a producer bracing against the warming conditions to come.
When it comes to climate, Larry is quick to draw comparisons to his French counterparts: Lingua Franca’s vineyards are on the 45th parallel, the same line of latitude as the Rhône Valley’s Côte-Rôtie. While this means that the daylight hours are comparable, the overall climate is far cooler. “It’s why we get so much ripeness with lower alcohol levels,” Larry explains.
“We have more heat and sunlight than in, say, Burgundy. And higher daytime highs. But overall, we’re cooler in the mornings, and in the evening we’re colder. “The problem we have with climate change here is very mitigated,” Larry explains frankly. “The meteorological models for the Willamette Valley show that, over a 50-year period, we’ll have about the same amount of rainfall but the temperatures will rise on average 1.5 to 2°C. This is serious when we look at heat accumulation.” But from a wine-grower’s point of view, and specifically when it comes to Willamette Valley Pinot, it’s a different story.
Scroll back 20 years, when growers were trying to establish the reputation of Pinot Noir here, and the climate was on the cool side. “A while back, there were a lot of winemaking migrants from California – they thought Oregon was cool enough to grow Pinot. What they didn’t know when they came in the 1970s or in the late-’60s, was that it was actually too cold,” says
Larry. “But the climate has actually smiled upon Oregon and the Willamette Valley because it’s warmer. We’re still on the lower end of where you can
“So, we’re not going to be too warm for Pinot. Unless climate change is more extreme than we imagined five years ago – then, the whole world is going to be totally messed up. But I’m very hopeful. A few bigger wineries have moved in, because it is a great area. And I think they see the future.”
In Napa, too – where extreme heat is perceived to be more of an issue – Paul emphasises just how nuanced the climate picture is. Firstly, the weather patterns here run like clockwork. Rain falls between 15th November and 15th March. The winds begin to blow around 3pm, daily (“They’re coming from the southwest, from San Francisco Bay. And they’re actually providing moisture”), fog rolls in about 11.30pm. And it’s these unique, specific conditions that make for such incredible winegrowing.
“Our fog is actually a marine layer. It comes in at approximately 350 to about 500m. So, you’ll go to dinner, and you’ll look up and see stars. Then you’ll come out of dinner and it’ll be kind of cloudy above your head. And that’s the fog. It’s what’s really special about these hillsides. They’re getting the moisture and the freshness that comes through at night, so every morning we start with 100% humidity.”
It’s this exposure to fog, Paul explains, that dictates the size of the berries, the ripening patterns and the tannin levels. “We’re getting the unique nature of the hillsides: we can capture the freshness as the breeze comes though, giving smaller but not tiny berries, with a greater juice-to-skin ratio. So we can get structure and balance.”
But, in spite of Paul’s faith in the stability of growing conditions in Napa, heat and drought are an issue of increasing concern. “Because we’ve had fires, people think, OK, fires equal hot. Well, that’s true on a very basic level. But in 2021, for example: yes, it was the hottest recorded year in California history, except on the coast. Look at a map of California, and it shows red where it was very warm. And then, all along the coast, it shows blue: it was actually average or below average.
Because all the warm air was rising in the warmer Central Valley, we were getting these breezes in the fog. “In Napa, we’ve always had heat spikes. What we’re seeing is that the frequency of heat spikes hasn’t changed, but the intensity has. They may last a little bit longer: instead of one day or two days, they may be three or four days. And instead of topping out at 38°C,
now maybe they’re 40. So that’s been the dynamic of the change.” These heat spikes, at present, might be intense but they are manageable.
A decade of drought, though, is another matter. “We’re starting to see producers beginning to change how they farm,” Paul explains. “We’re still a relatively young growing region. I mean, the modern Napa Valley really didn’t start until 1966 when Robert Mondavi built his winery.” Initially, people followed the Bordelaise style of growing, using low vines, for example. “But we’ve realised our vines don’t need to be short. Because we have rocky soil, we get warm days. We don’t need them radiating heat at night. We need to raise them, so we get more airflow to cool the vines during the day.
“We’ve also evolved canopy techniques. Around 50 years ago, our canopies were big and bushy. They call it California sprawl. Then we did more trellising: there were producers who removed every leaf in the fruit zone. Our view was always that we wanted the fruit, but we still want that freshness, that perfume and that elegance, so we kept leaves in the fruiting canopy zone. And we’ve evolved in terms of our water usage.”
Paul has brought in technology to measure the sap flow in the vine: they are able to monitor at what time of day the greatest water loss is happening. This means they can limit irrigation, watering only when it will be most efficiently used by the vine. “I laugh when I look back at the old Institute of Masters of Wine training book,” Paul says, “It shows a picture of Californian
viticulture. And it’s basically a vineyard a picture of a large-scale, bulk wine producer in the Central Valley that has huge canopies and huge overhead sprinklers.
So people think we water all the time in California, and that we only water to make more wine. But it couldn’t be further away from the truth.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Evolving canopy techniques and water management; careful vineyard selection; nuanced, terroir-specific winemaking: the picture painted by Larry, Jay and Paul is measured and sophisticated. These are producers who – vintage by vintage – are getting closer to their land and to developing their own best-practice techniques and responses to manage the climate
change around them.
Without a doubt, the biggest story here is of the incredible winemaking conditions, breathtaking geology and wines that – in spite of nature’s curveballs – express this remarkable place. Larry, Jay and Paul are all looking to the future and the potential of the next vintage, rather than dwelling on the past. Perhaps this is in a winemaker’s DNA.
As Larry philosophically puts it: “We haven’t had a bad vintage. The good news is that 2021 was a very good crop. Maybe not quite as good as ’19, which I think are the most elegant, probably the most thoroughly complex wines we’ve made so far.
“We’re in a great spot: the climate, the exposure, the temperatures and the soil: everything is wonderful. It’s not hard to make great wine here, if you have the right if you have an attitude towards terroir.”
For more on Napa and Oregon wines, listen to the USA episode of our podcast, Drinking Well