by Adam LaZarre, Director of Winemaking at Wine Hooligans

Writing a harvest recap report is normally an easy exercise each year. You discuss climactic conditions during the major phases of grape development throughout the growing season and finish with harvest notes and quality assessment. This year, not so much. I had the opportunity to bear witness to so many challenging conditions and factors that would seemingly impact every facet of not only the grape growing and winemaking world on the west coast, but the entire industry in general. There has been a considerable amount of information flooding the news channels regarding fires, smoke, COVID, tariffs, and quality considerations. Some of it is accurate, some of it is not, and some of it is downright misleading. What I can tell you is that it is more complicated than anything you may have read so far. I have been getting questions regarding the 2020 vintage and so will do my best to provide as transparent an assessment as I can up to this point given that harvest has still not quite finished up for us as this is being written.

How was the growing season in general?

Well, we started off in pretty good shape. A good wet, winter helped pump nutrients, minerals, and amino acids into the dormant vines during these cold months. This is important as the vines will need all of these during the critical stage of bud break early in the spring.  We did experience some brief periods of freezing temperatures late March and early April during early shoot growth that impacted certain white varieties in the Paso Robles region, however we saw little affect on our grapes.

One of Murphy’s Laws of grape growing stipulates that the only rain you will have between the months of March and December will be during the short, critical period of grapevine flowering. 2020 was no different. Although the Central Coast of California seemed to fare well, our vines in the Willamette Valley did not. The interference of pollination was so severe that it was estimated that at least 30% of the potential crop did not develop. The term for this condition is called “coulure”. Use that at your next winetasting party.

Everything else during the season looked good.  Berry size was normal to small. Concentrated flavors with solid tannins and good acids are the hallmark of this year’s vintage. Moderate daytime temperatures and cool nights dominated with some warmer mid-august days pushing sugars up ahead of actual grape maturity. This is just fine for sparkling wine grapes and early aromatic white grapes. Harvest started early for many with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growers on the Napa side of Los Carneros rushing to get some of their crop off the vine before the expected two weeks of 100+ degree weather at the end of August. This is an annual occurrence for us living on the Central Coast and know it is generally short-lived with temperatures dropping back into the 80’s soon after. We were three days into this hot spell when my daughter and I stared up into the afternoon sky and to watch the impressive lightning storm that was passing through the state that day. And everything changed.

How did the fires affect the grapes?

Here is where it gets confusing. Fire is easy to understand. If your winery or vineyard burns to the ground, then you are impacted by fire. Smoke, on the other hand, is more complicated. At the outset, it would stand to reason that if your vineyards were coated in smoke for an appreciable amount of time, your grapes would absorb the smoke and the resulting wine would be “tainted”. That is not necessarily the case. Smoke and smoke taint do go hand in hand up to a point and only when certain conditions are met. There is still much that we don’t know, however we do possess some knowledge regarding the problem. Much of the science behind this issue comes from the Australian Wine Research Initiative which has spent a great deal of time on the subject. It seems as though their entire continent bursts into flames every year shortly before their harvest so you would expect them to be the experts on the subject. The fires that hit us in California this year (along with the fire after the fires) has spurred considerably more research. I guess when regions like Napa Valley and Russian River are severely impacted, there is a bit more urgency for research and the development of new methodology to mitigate the effects of smoke on the grapes and resultant wines. One thing we did learn is that it isn’t how much smoke that the vines see rather than the distance to the source of the smoke. Apparently the chemicals that cause smoke taint become more inert the longer they stay in the air. So a vineyard that is five miles from a fire has a far greater chance of being impacted than a vineyard that is 100 miles away, even if they both see the same amount of smoke. We’re also learning that the longer an impacted grape stays on the vine without being harvested and crushed, the chemicals will start to become inert and the chances of the resulting wine being impacted will lessen.

Knowing all of this helped us plan our harvest accordingly. In Napa Valley where the risk was the greatest, we let our fruit hang much longer than normal to let the smoke chemicals become less reactive. We sent samples to the labs for analysis to confirm that this was, in fact, happening. We also required our growers to wash down all grapes with water just prior to the grapes being picked so that ash didn’t find its way into the fermenters.

In Paso Robles, the two regions where we grow most of our fruit: Santa Margarita and San Juan Creek, were barely impacted with the closest fire being 130 miles from both AVAs.

Oregon is still a question mark. They had yet to begin picking their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris when the fires hit. Regrettably, much of the fires were within 20 miles of the vineyards we source our grapes from so much of the wine contains some degree of smoke taint. However, our winery there has some brilliant winemakers on staff. They partnered with the researchers at Oregon State University and so had access to the latest research available. Several experimental measures to mitigate smoke taint issues were employed during grape processing and fermentation and the results are quite impressive. I have a great deal of confidence that the wines we will be working with in Oregon will be clean.

What do we say to customers who are hesitant to buy 2020 wines because of the smoke taint stigma attached?

Very simple. The most vocal wineries in the news who maintain that they refused to make wine in 2020 over “quality concerns” are the same wineries that collectively placed over 1,600,000 gallons of bulk Cabernet Sauvignon on the market earlier in the year because they had produced WAY TOO MUCH 2018 and were still selling 2016/2017 wines when COVID hit and the restaurants effectively shut down their sales. I believe many were already looking for an excuse out of having to make 2020 as it was. Over 80% of all Napa wineries picked their fruit and made excellent wine and it would be a shame to let a few marketing departments from some high profile wine companies dictate consumer sentiment to the vintage. Our wines from Oak Knoll/Rutherford/Oakville/Etc. are free of detectible smoke issues as are many others.

As I write this, the last of our grapes are being harvested. 125 tons of inky Petite Sirah from the San Juan Creek area of Paso Robles. Fermentations are screaming right along and I am so far very pleased with the flavors and concentration of the wines we’re making this year. I am pretty darn optimistic that I will have a large number of exceptional wines to work with out of this vintage. Quality of what we put in the bottle has never been an issue that had to be compromised at any point and will continue to be that way.