California, Newsbreak, Wine

Heat Spikes, Smoke Taint, Quality Wines: The Top 3 Things To Know Before You Buy 2020 Californian Wine

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Record heat spikes, uncontrollable fires, and shuttered tasting rooms: 2020 was tough. Like most of the world, Californian vintners want to move on.
The Californian wine industry has been through many disasters over the century. From fires to earthquakes to the Prohibition. Yet winemakers are stoic, if not optimistic, about the quality in the first pandemic year. As a wine lover, you will need to know what to look for when these 2020 wines reach the market.

The impact of the Glass Fire on the 2020 vintage

The Glass Fire began in Northern California on September 27, 2020, at 3:48 AM (PDT) from an unknown cause. It lasted 23 days. 11 of Napa Valley’s 475 member wineries reported large or total structural damage. Napa Valley Vintners report fewer than 20 of Napa Valley’s winemaking facilities affected.
The fire started near Glass Mountain Road in Deer Park, Napa County. It then spread into Sonoma County. It began as a single 20-acre brush fire, then grew and merged with two smaller fires. By the night of September 27, and into the next day, 11,000 acres were on fire.
There is a strong impulse not to look backward. At least 80% of Napa Valley wineries have pushed on to produce the 2020 harvest. Although volumes are small compared to previous years.
The Glass Fire devastated the Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain AVA. In Santa Cruz’s mountains, the fire encroached homes and cellars. Winemakers are desperate to prevent smoke and heat from ruining the entire crop.
There were also other fires further south in the state. The fires in Salinas and the Carmel Valley surrounded Monterey vineyards. These wineries could not pick red grapes in 2020. This could be a devastating blow to one of the best pinot-noir regions in the world. Although, the white-wine grapes were less affected. Paso Robles and Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County were also affected but to a much lesser degree.

How smoke taint affected the wines

Smoke taint appears in wine on the nose and palate more as sour ashtray taste in finished wines. For many winemakers, it was smoke taint that was the vintage’s unknown factor. How would the hazy conditions affect the flavor of the grapes?
The 2020 vintage allowed winemakers to understand the varying effects of smoke. How does smoke pass through the grape’s skin to affect the wine?
Old smoke blowing over vineyards turns up as hazy air and dull weather. This does not affect grapes as dense smoky air, which contains volatile phenolics.
We may need to understand this more as wildfires become more common with global warming.
The USDA shows California’s harvest decreased by 13.9 percent in 2020. Although this was due to lower yields, rather than smoke taint.

Winemakers searched the state for quality grapes

After two bumper crops in 2018 and 2019, the 2020 vintage will be a smaller year for growers and winemakers. Even before the fires, winemakers already predicted yields to be lower.
Winemakers from further north descended on Santa Barbara to buy grapes. Wineries in Santa Barbara County were fortunate this year. They were not affected by fires or smoke taint. The buying interest from Northern California helped raise Pinot Noir prices for growers.
The reduced volume of grapes could have a silver lining. In recent years, growers have experienced downward pressure on prices. This was due to high volumes in recent years. The smaller-yielding harvests may balance the market, especially for those buying bulk grapes. Bu growers that lost most of their crop will not be as optimistic about their futures.

Final thoughts: A small but memorable vintage

The exceptional weather conditions at the start of vintage in California saved many. It set up the regions for an excellent, low-yielding vintage. Here’s what you need to know when buying wine from the 2020 vintage.
  1. The Glass Fires devastated Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain AVAs. Other areas remained unscathed. Remember, California is a large wine-producing state.
  2. There is a difference in the quality and taste of grapes affected by the direct smoke and grapes. Wineries who only experience hazy air from other regions were not affected.
  3. Some Northern California winemakers purchased grapes from unaffected regions further south. Areas such as Santa Barbara county benefited this year.
Napa Valley, Sonoma, Mendocino County, and the Central Coast, reported concentrated, high-quality fruit. If harvested early, the winery may have escaped the fires’ devastation and impact.
With so much diversity in Californian wine, there will be many wines not affected by fires at all. When the 2020 vintage comes through, the wines will remind us of how we triumphed over adversity. One day, this year will only be a memory. 
The whole world can drink to that.
Photo by Nikolay Maslov on