Sonoma County started its difficult sales pitch for the 2020 vintage on Tuesday with a harvest-wrapup webinar that opened with the bad news from the fires, and closed with one vintner calling it "the vintage of the decade" – and meaning that in a good way.
Sonoma grapegrowers will lose $150 million because of fires and smoke this year, because 25 to 30 percent of wine grapes in the county will not be harvested, according to a survey of farmers conducted by Sonoma County Winegrowers.
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With the recent Glass Fire that devastated northern Napa Valley on everyone's minds, this survey is a reminder that California wine country was having a difficult fire year long before that. The survey revealed that 90 percent of the Sonoma County grapes that will be harvested had already been picked before the Glass Fire broke out on September 27.
Instead, it was the LNU Complex fires that broke out in mid-August that proved most costly to Sonoma County. And the loss was widespread, as more than 70 percent of all winegrape growers in the county reported that they expect at least some of their grapes will either not be harvested or will be rejected by wineries.
"We harvested all of our Chardonnay this year," said Steve Sangiacomo, partner at Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, which farms 1600 acres and sells grapes to more than 70 wineries. "The smoke is more detrimental to reds. We feel very fortunate that we were able to get all the whites in tank into our wineries. The Pinot Noir was a great opportunity for us to work with our wineries. Some of it was [harvested] early. Some of it is in tank and it's tasting great, and we're optimistic. We have some others where we'll work with our winery partners and keep tasting it as we get toward next year. If anything is in barrel, it's going to be a vetting process to make sure we can produce world-class Sonoma County wine."
Corey Beck, CEO and chief of winemaking for Francis Ford Coppola Winery, said this vintage is not the first time that wineries have had to deal with compounds in the wine that they may not want.
"We've been battling with a lot of things in the wine industry, like TCA and VA and brettanomyces when it's not good. Can a little bit of smoke be as bad as that?" Beck said. "As an industry we've learned to work with these things."
There are several methods of removing smoke taint, such as reverse osmosis, and Mari Jones, president of Emeritus Vineyards, said that 2020 will be a good learning experience about their effectiveness.
"We did have some smoke on our vineyard for a couple of days," Jones said. "So far the tests show that it's pretty negligible in terms of numbers, but we don't have a baseline because this is new for us. We worked with our winery clients to make sure we were only giving them quality fruit or coming to different terms on it. We had people who outright rejected our fruit. They said: 'This isn't going to work for us'. That was hard for us as growers. We're all looking forward to see what can be done to mitigate these effects: reverse osmosis, different barrels. But it was hard. There were a couple days where our entire team looked out at the vineyard and cried a little bit at what was left."
Even though the webinar was not open to consumers, every speaker took great pains to say that consumers will love 2020 Sonoma County wines.
"People when they're tasting the wines are surpnerised at how good the quality is," said Glenn Proctor, best known as partner for the grape broker Ciatti Co., but also managing partner for Puccioni Ranch vineyard. "They're fruit-forward, a lot of the whites and reds. The concentration. I think it's going to be one of the better vintages we've seen in a long time, once we get in there and taste the wines. I'm excited about the vintage."
Jones went further, saying: "These are some of the best wines I've ever tasted from our winery. It was a little bit lower yields than we've seen recently but that just gives you more concentration and intensity. The vintage for us, it's kind of the vintage of the decade. They are just truly stunning, intense, absolutely gorgeous wines."
Some wineries are not as confident, and you can tell from the market for bulk wines leftover from the 2018 and 2019 vintage. Before the fires, thousands of gallons of those wines had been languishing in tanks around the state as their owners hoped someone, anyone, would show interest in buying them.
"The bulk market had been dismal," Proctor said. "We saw a little pickup in the bulk market once the pandemic started. People were buying a lot of wines in [grocery stores]. It didn't really benefit the north coast and Sonoma County, because those brands are more affected by [restaurants] and tasting rooms being closed.
"Usually at harvest time in the brokerage, it's quiet. You think about taking your vacation," Proctor said. "This year, once the fire hit, it was crazy. We had a lot of wineries coming in looking at '18 and '19 bulk wines. They bought at higher prices and were very active. Right now we don't have a lot of inventory sitting on the bulk market. It will be interesting to see how people look at the 2020 bulk wines in terms of quality."
A piece of clearly good news came from the grower survey: farmworkers in Sonoma County are making significantly more money than they were just three years ago, with their average hourly pay up 19 percent to $19.87 per hour.
Moreover, Sonoma County Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse said 80 percent of vineyard employees are now fulltime workers, a 20 percent jump since 2017. The county's vineyards now use 50 percent fewer seasonal employees than just three years ago. Fulltime workers get benefits that seasonal employees do not, and can live a more sustainable lifestyle, so more fulltime workers is good for the community, Kruse said. At the same time, she said 30 percent of grapes in the county are now mechanically harvested.
"Our growers have really been challenged for the last 10 years by a labor shortage," Kruse said, blaming the cannabis industry as well as construction, especially after fires in 2017 burned down many buildings that needed to be rebuilt. "Our growers have been focused on finding fulltime workers."
Kruse said about 5.6 percent of the Latinx population of Sonoma County works in the vineyards, which is a lower figure than has been reported. The survey showed that 20 percent of vineyard workers are women.
The Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation has given out nearly $100,000 in financial assistance this year to more than 200 farmworkers and their families who lost their homes or were forced to evacuate by the fires.
Of course the best way, ultimately, to support Sonoma County farmworkers is to buy Sonoma County wine.
"2020 has been a challenge for the grapegrower," said Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners. "It's a challenge for the vintner. It won't be a challenge for the consumer."