September is wine harvest month. For Shed Horn Cellars in California’s Lake County, it has been a disaster. A wall of flame from the Valley Fire, which started on Sept. 12, burned the winery to the ground.
For nearby Hawk and Horse Vineyards, this harvest is a miracle. Though the same fire charred hundreds of forest acres on the 1,300-acre property, the 18-acre biodynamic vineyard was barely touched. “No one can explain why it was spared,” said an emotional Tracey Hawkins, whose family owns the estate.
Harvest is always a tense time for winemakers, who worry about hail smashing grapes before they’re picked and whether rain will interfere with ripening.
But in Washington State and northern California this year, their biggest worry has been a series of massive wildfires. That’s especially true in off-the-beaten-path Lake County, directly north of Napa Valley, which was hit by three fires since the end of July.
Now that the latest one, the Valley Fire, is under control, how did it affect Lake County’s grapes? Is the 2015 vintage a write-off? It’s complicated.
With about three dozen wineries and more than 150 growers, the county is a cheaper version of Napa, the place big Napa producers such as the Hess Collection and Duckhorn seek reasonably priced cabernet grapes to fill out blends. In the past decade, though, a growing number of boutique producers have been drawn to the area’s high elevations and volcanic soils that are ideal for high-quality cabernet and sauvignon blanc.
Some, such as Hawk and Horse, had already harvested most of their grapes and will bring in the rest this week. Ditto Shed Horn, whose bottled wines were safely stored in an offsite location.
But many big growers, like Andy Beckstoffer, still had grapes on the vines as the fire exploded from zero to 40,000 acres in the first 24 hours.
“The Valley fire delayed our harvest for a few days,” is all Beckstoffer would concede. I spoke with him, via cellphone, as he was driving around in an effort to check his 1,300 acres of vineyards in Lake County’s Red Hills area. “An awful lot of the roads were closed.”
Few vineyards burned, but the Lake County Winegrape Commission estimates that the fire may have scorched as much as 15 percent of the area’s vineyards. Crews armed with shovels put out plenty of hot spots between vines and a layer of ash-coated vine leaves and grapes. (Vineyards-in-flames scenes such as those from the corny romantic drama, A Walk in the Clouds, in which Keanu Reeves uproots a burning old vine with his bare hands, weren't reported.)
The vineyards' survival depended on thousands of firefighters, sudden shifts of wind, drizzle, and just plain luck. Winemaker Dave Guffy of the Hess Collection reported that the fire stopped just west of its Hidden Valley vineyard in Lake County, whose grapes are the backbone of Hess Select reds.
Thousands lacked power. Matt Hughes, winemaker at Six Sigma Ranch and Winery, crushed grapes at nearby Brassfield because the Ranch had been evacuated and, in any case, had no power to run crushing equipment.
The biggest concern has been over smoke taint, which makes wines smell and taste like a wet ashtray. That’s what happened to pinot noirs from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley in 2008, when June fires burned 54,000 acres and smoke hung over the valley for weeks, like some version of nuclear winter.
Grapes and vines are highly sensitive to smoke exposure during the growing season. Much of what vintners know about smoke taint comes from research conducted in Australia after huge bushfires in 2003.
Effects seem to depend on timing—how early in the growing season fires happen, how long grapes are exposed to smoke, and how dense the smoke is. “Strong west-to-northeast wind carried smoke from the first two Lake County fires away from the vineyards,” explained a hopeful Beckstoffer. “And the Valley Fire came at the end of the season.” Those are both good signs.
Taint seems to come partly from the grape skin and partly because smoke compounds enter a vine’s sap, eventually reaching the grape itself. That’s why, alas, washing grapes doesn’t help.
Thin-skinned pinot noir, not a variety planted in Lake County, may be especially sensitive. Red wines, which are macerated with the skins and then aged, end up showing the most smoke taint, though filtration and high-tech winemaking methods can remove some of it.
Historic Langtry Estate and other producers have been testing grapes for several specific compounds of smoke to see if it’s worth harvesting those that remain on the vines. There has been little evidence of taint so far.
At one point, the fire was raging toward Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley, forcing such winery owners as Denise and Steve Adams of Adamvs to evacuate, with sheep and chickens in tow, but no Napa wineries or vineyards were damaged.
With more than 76,000 acres burned and nearly 2,000 structures destroyed in Lake County—according to the latest numbers from CalFire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)—the damage estimate has reached hundreds of millions of dollars. Four deaths were associated with the fires.
“The Valley Fire is much, much more than a fire—but rather a disaster,” said California Fire Battalion chief Mike Smith in a press conference at the Lake County courthouse on Friday.