Wine News Napa and Willamette Suffer Poor 2020 Vintage

Napa and Willamette Suffer Poor 2020 Vintage

Smoke from record-breaking wildfires was what did for an otherwise promising vintage for much of America's West Coast.
© University of Melbourne | Smoke from record-breaking wildfires was what did for an otherwise promising vintage for much of America's West Coast.
On average, both regions had subpar vintages, but statistics don't tell the whole story.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Friday, 15-Jan-2021

A majority of wineries in Napa County and Northern Oregon reported that last year's harvest quality was "below average" or "poor," according to an influential report issued on Wednesday.

There is a "no duh" feel to that statement: both Napa and Oregon's Willamette Valley were hit by wildfires and smoke and many vineyards didn't even harvest their fruit.

Related stories:
California Rolls Out its Toughest Vintage
Oregon Wineries Wait for the Smoke to Clear
Sonoma Starts Selling the Turbulent 2020 Vintage

Rob McMillan, who presented the results as part of his annual State of the Wine Industry report, told Wine-Searcher that it's important to remember that just because some wineries think the 2020 harvest quality is "poor" doesn't mean that the wines that reach consumers will be.

"If you took all the production and blended it together, it would be a bad vintage," said McMillan, Executive Vice President of Silicon Valley Bank's Wine Division. "I think what you're going to find is those wineries that actually produce a crop in the premium regions, the wines are going to be great.
That doesn't mean all the wines are great. Some wineries had a really crummy vintage and some had an excellent vintage. You can't average them. They're individual points."

Nonetheless, for longtime US wine industry observers, who are accustomed to hearing "it's another great vintage in California" every year – especially from Napa – it's shocking to see such an admission. Because the wineries responded anonymously to a survey, they were more honest than they might have been had a reporter called and asked.

In a question about regional harvest quality, only 8 percent of Napa wineries surveyed said the 2020 harvest was "excellent", and another 21 percent called it "good". In contrast, 24 percent called it "below average" and 31 percent said the 2020 harvest quality was "poor."

For Northern Oregon, including hard-hit Willamette Valley, just 12 percent called it excellent, while 26 percent said below average and 28 percent said poor.

Sonoma County fared only slightly better, with 45 percent of wineries calling the vintage below average or poor.

These self-assessments were considerably harsher than the rest of the wine regions surveyed. In Paso Robles, 83 percent of wineries called the quality excellent or good, as did 75 percent of wineries in Santa Barbara. In Washington state, which largely avoided the wildfires that plagued the West Coast, 86 percent of wineries called it excellent or good. New York wineries are giddy about 2020, with 67 percent calling it excellent.

Smoke and mirrors

Normally, poor-quality fruit would lead to poor-quality wines. McMillan said that for 2020 that wouldn't necessarily be the case, because some vineyards that were affected by smoke taint simply were not picked. Others were picked and the resulting wines will be treated in an attempt to remove the cigarette flavor, and those manipulated wines will end up in much cheaper bottles than originally intended.

McMillan said that especially in Napa Valley, where the reputation for quality has enabled producers to charge prices that are the envy of the industry, the need to protect brand reputations will stop wineries from releasing subpar wines, even from a subpar vintage.

"It may get sold in bulk and somebody would clean it up," McMillan told Wine-Searcher. "It just gets blended down into lower-priced wine."

It is possible, however, that some bottles will reach store shelves next year labeled "2020 Napa Cabernet" containing wine that was smoke tainted and then cleaned up using a technology like spinning cones, which also removes desirable flavors and aromas. They won't be the brands you know; instead, negociant-like entrepreneurs might jump at the chance to sell a Napa Cabernet cheaply when they see the low prices for "repaired" bulk wine.

In other cases, wine from premium areas like Napa Valley or Sonoma County could end up in much cheaper general California appellation wines, which would be unthinkable in a normal year. Imagine that: Napa Cabernet added to Fresno Merlot in a five-liter jug.

"Maybe you need something for blending. It depends on the individual producer," McMillan said.

At least Napa has alternatives. Oregon wineries are in a tougher situation for a number of reasons. Pinot Noir is more susceptible to smoke taint; Oregon wineries have not had the recent experience with wildfires that California has; McMillan said far fewer vineyards had crop insurance, so vineyard owners would have been more tempted to harvest the fruit and sell it to someone. However, unlike California, which sells millions of bottles of California appellation red blends, there is no real mass production industry in Oregon, so there's not an obvious place for "repaired" Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to go.

"I've talked to some folks in Oregon that took it as an opportunity to experiment and figure out some of the ways the juice may be usable," McMillan said. "But I don't think that anybody is going to bottle stuff that's smoke-damaged. It's too scary."

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