A Word on California’s Vintage 2020 and Smoke Exposure

A cluster of red grapes

You may have noticed that 2020 brought some smoke to the west coast this fall, an almost welcome distraction this year from news of the pandemic, the election and the murder hornets. But the days of haze pose a pressing question:

What will smoke do to California’s 2020 Grape Vintage?

The answer is, it depends…

For most growers and wineries, very little will happen. When 46 million acres burned in Australia last year, about 3% of wine production was damaged. For comparison, “just” 2.3 million acres have burned in California this year, according to San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley.

And that’s good news, because unlike producers of soda and beer, we vintners only get one shot per year; we can’t buy more syrup, barley or hops from warehoused inventories to make 2020 Asbill Valley Sauvignon Blanc. If farming didn’t go well, we have a year with no product, unless we get creative with grape sourcing to keep our club members provisioned. (We aim to avoid this, because Asbill Valley Sauvignon Blanc isn’t quite the same if the grapes don’t come from Asbill Valley!)

Here at the ranch, we picked about 40% of the vineyards before skies got hazy. Still on the vines as of this writing in mid September are the “big reds.” For them, the risk depends on time and intensity of exposure from veraison until harvest. (More smoke or ash after the grapes turn purple equals bigger risk.) And while it’s impossible to know how things will turn out until wine is in the tank, we saw a similar level of smoke in the vineyards in 2008 when 1.6 million acres burned in California, and the 2008 vintage from Six Sigma Ranch turned out well. (We invite you to verify this if you have a 2008 in the cellar ; )

So Sandy isn’t worried, but he will still make two adjustments at the winery to favor wine aromatics over smoke. First, he bought commercial yeast this year, selected to showcase the bold fruit aromatics of the grapes. (Last year we did native fermentations, the winemaking equivalent of climbing mountains without a safety rope, done mostly by very good winemakers with very good vineyards and some gumption.) And second, Sandy will favor cold soaks before fermentation (grape juice sits chilled with the skins in the tank to extract color) instead of extended maceration (same idea, except after fermentation when the alcohol present might draw out smoke aromas in addition to the color from the grape skins.)

All the things that make grape farming and winemaking scary are the same things that make it charming and fun. Each vintage comes with it’s challenges, changes and aromatics from the vineyard, and they are perfectly preserved in the bottle. Now lets just get 2020 off the vines and into barrels before the murder hornets return!

Christian Ahlmann

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