Wind Change Saves Wineries from Fire

Workers pick grapes while the huge Caldor Fire blazes away in the background.
© Brian Bumgarner | Workers pick grapes while the huge Caldor Fire blazes away in the background.
Wildfire flames might have bypassed vineyards in California's El Dorado County, but smoke taint remains a risk.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Thursday, 02-Sep-2021

Californians have been watching the disturbing progress of the Caldor Fire for more than two weeks as it approaches Lake Tahoe.

There hasn't been much good news about this fire that has forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people, including across the Nevada border. But here is a small good thing: the fire has largely turned away from threatening El Dorado County wineries, which are mostly to the west of it as the wind spreads the huge blaze to the east.

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It was a close call, though. Brian Bumgarner's eponymous winery was one of several to receive evacuation orders.

"We were the closest winery to the fire itself," said Bumgarner. "Fortunately we were able to get some access permits to harvest grapes. We were able to pull some Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It was right as the fire was approaching the winery. There was a huge cloud of smoke right over the hill."

Bumgarner, who makes a serious (and very nice) Cabernet Sauvignon, said he had difficulty assembling a picking crew because many area vineyards and wineries also wanted to harvest, even though it was a little early.

"Everybody is in the same situation," Bumgarner told Wine-Searcher. "You have concerns over smoke taint so you try to pull as much as you can as soon as you can. We put on our N95 masks and harvested in some of the thickest smoke I've ever seen. It was really bad, and ominous too, with this big orange cloud just over the horizon."

Bumgarner said CalFire decided to set a "back burn" in the canyon near the winery, to remove the trees in a controlled burn in order to limit the fire's spread.

"They basically torched that entire canyon," Bumgarner said. "The idea was to torch the fuel before it could threaten structures, and they were successful. We had favorable winds for us; not so much for Tahoe [city]. The smoke was going away."

Now he feels that the winery is safe, but he is worried about potential smoke taint in the grapes.

"In the case of the Semillon and Sauv Blanc I took a real high-power blower and blew off any ash that I could," Bumgarner said. "I did whole-cluster press and racked it off as soon as I could. I'm not getting any smoke off of it. It's actively fermenting right now and I don't smell anything."

Smoke taint compounds are believed to reside mostly in the skins, which means that white wines are much less vulnerable than reds. Bumgarner is concerned about his red wines – he also makes a nice Tempranillo – but there isn't much he can do now.

"I am being fairly picky about where I'm purchasing fruit this year," said Bumgarner, who has 10 acres of estate vineyards but also buys El Dorado County grapes. "It's going to be a tough one for growers because a lot of people are going to be doing that."

Smoke on the horizon

Josh Bendick, winemaker at Holly's Hill (try the Classique Mourvedre), said he and his wife had loaded up their trucks and even their cats for a mandatory evacuation when they discovered they lived on a quirk of the evacuation map: their home next to the winery was actually right on the line, and for some reason Josh's wife and co-winemaker Carrie Bendick got an evacuation notice but he did not.

"We have a good escape route, so we decided to stay," Bendick told Wine-Searcher. "The night we nearly got evacuated, the cops were driving around, with the sirens. We shut off all the lights. I didn't want them to find us."

Now Holly's Hill is enjoying blue skies and good air quality as the fire has moved away, but he can see the smoke over Lake Tahoe. Like Bumgarner, he took advantage of the opportunity to harvest some grapes: the road to the front of the winery was closed, but a back road was open.

"It's still super early for harvest. We don't usually pick until later in September," Bendick said. "We started picking grapes early because we were afraid of smoke taint. We got all our rosés in; we got our Viognier in. It was hard sampling grapes with a mask on. But it was so smoky.

Bendick said he isn't worried about picking earlier than usual.

"It kind of works for us because we've been going to a lower-alcohol style, slowly," he said. "It would be nerve-wracking if we were picking Grenache this early."

Charles Mansfield is the owner of Goldbud Farm, which does contract farming and sells grapes to a number of local wineries. He said if wineries want the grapes, he will get them harvested.

"For us this year will not be as lucrative and we’ll do some discounting because we have to share this in way that keeps business," Mansfield said. "We have no choice but to do what we can do. Goldbud is a balanced company: we own, lease and manage for other owners. We have to try to get them some revenue. Same goes for my field guys. They make a good amount of money picking the grapes and you take that away from a population that already doesn’t have a lot. We owe it to them to give them a chance."

Mansfield said that all growers and wineries are concerned about smoke taint.

"At this time, the one trend that is apparent is proximity to the flames. This is the biggest correlation to bad flavors in the wine," Mansfield said. "I almost look at it like Chernobyl. If you are standing next to the reactor with a hole in it, you’re in trouble. The further away you get the more tolerance there is. Donkey and Goat [Winery] last year got really creative with their winemaking with smoke taint. Lighter press, making rosés. Wineries that will go down swinging and pivot I'll do the same for them. Takes a lot of communication, and a hit financially. But the alternative is to just pack it in. I don't give up until no one answers my calls.

"I believe the industry here is evolving into a French model: they don't irrigate, or won't make a wine when it's not good enough. The future is that we are going to make wine based on what nature gives us."

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