Obviously, we need to start this by sending wishes and prayers to all of our friends in the wake of the fires in ‘wine country’. The loss of life is horrific and the extensive damage to property, still being assessed, is clearly catastrophic. Our heartfelt sorrows go out in particular to those who lost their homes and businesses.
There are a lot of folks who will be offering condolences. The media has, and will, be full of articles about people’s heroics, first responders, and other encouraging tales about the human spirit. It does seems like there have been way too many disasters this year in particular. There are a lot of people that will tell you they know how you feel, but most don’t. Being helpless in the face of an overwhelming tragedy isn’t something most humans have had to experience over the last few decades.
Around here, we’ve had a bit of an inkling (more than we cared to) of what NoCal has been going through as three of the ‘characters’ in our own Winex crew were far too close for comfort to the Corona fire a couple of weeks ago and Canyon Fire 2 early this week. Having to decide what to save, considering the immediate and long-term importance of the item, and to have to make those decisions within a very short period of time and under duress, is scary enough in itself. Our people were fortunate to be beyond the final perimeter in those cases, but others weren’t.
It’s certainly fair to say that some of us down here didn’t realize how bad things were in Napa and Sonoma because we had our own disaster going. It was amusing to hear the national news people talk about our fires as ‘just outside of L.A.’ We’re an hour south on a good day and substantially more in traffic. In any case we have been ‘shaken and stirred’ here to the point where we might vaguely be able to sense the situation up there.
We actually weren’t sure what to do given the events of the past week. We know a lot of people in the north, and have friends that did lose houses. But we also figured that a people are a little tired of hearing about things burning. We’re supposed to be the ‘fun’ place. But this particular set of horrific events is right in our own back yard and, both as wine merchants and Californians, we thought we needed to say something.
The only point we would make falls in line with that whole ‘the wine business isn’t like any other’ thing. Given the fact that there are still fires raging up there it is still too soon to assess the damage. There have been more fatalities, more evacuations and more structures burned. Obviously, we aren’t trying to make light of anything. But we are starting to see articles about ‘what happens next’ and ‘rebuilding’. That caused us to ponder a little about ‘wine’ things.
How do you rebuild? Let’s say you are a winery. There’s no ‘good’ timing for a fire but right now is harvest. There are still some ‘ready’ grapes on the vine, possibly partly scorched, heat damaged, or affected by smoke. Even if they were still ok (apparently there were cases where the expanse of green healthy vines in a vineyard acted as something of a firebreak for crops, homes and buildings), how are wineries going to get to them? It doesn’t sound particularly healthy or safe to put a crew on picking. So, a lot of grapes are going to be lost in the vineyard.
If you were one of the luckier ones in this earlier harvest, a lot of your grapes are harvested and fermenting. But a lot of folks can’t get to their wineries to do some of the simple things essential to the basic making of the wine. As we have said many times on these pages, timing is an essential part of the winemaking equation. Not everyone does things the same way, but each winemaker has a protocol that can be pretty time intensive at this part of the process. Failure to do certain things at the right moment can create problems that cannot be fixed later on.
There are potential risks to existing stocks from fire, smoke or heat. Some are preventable, some are not, but someone has to be there and able to do it. Clearly that will be a problem for a number of producers. Even if there aren’t the ‘specifics’ we mentioned to negatively affect grapes or wine, lack of access on the part of winery crews has its own unique set of problems this time of year.
Taking it a step further, what if the winery goes altogether? You not only have what is being made, you have a bit of what was already made and still aging in barrel. So not only is the current ‘crop’ gone, so are portions of the last one or two vintages. At White Rock, one of the wineries rumored to be destroyed (their website tells a more positive story), they age their Cabernet in French oak for 20 months. So, the potential existed to lose three vintages.
The final assessment isn’t in for them. There are storage caves on the property which may have saved a lot of the stock. But White Rock serves as an example of what can happen. It isn’t the first name you think of when Napa Valley is mentioned, even though they have been there for decades. It is a unique, small production property in Soda Canyon that has a very specific style. They have a carefully established network for sales and most folks that have been around Napa Valley for a while know who they are.
So, let’s say they did lose as many as three vintages of their red wines (hopefully not). They could buy something else and bottle it, but it wouldn’t be the same thing that consumers have come to expect. They could be off the market for three years and have to start the distribution process all over again, no easy feat these days. If some of their 40-year-old vines were destroyed, it would take them, you guessed it, 40 years to get to them back to the same point. A lot of folks went through this kind of decision-making with phylloxera in the 90s, but that was a slow, predictable process not an overnight wipeout. You can’t plan for this sort of thing.
Finally, and again White Rock is just a real name that represents scores of wineries in every conceivable state of disarray from this terrible tragedy, what happens to such labels in the meantime? If you make tables, and one of your tables burns, you can make another one (yeah, we know that there’s at least one guy out there mumbling no two pieces of wood are the same). You can’t remake wine. Vintages, vine age, blends, etc., cannot be precisely reproduced. The competition in the marketplace is the fiercest we have seen in our decades of doing this, so coming to the market with less than your best is an uncomfortable proposition. If you don’t come to the market at all, that’s bad for other reasons.
On top of it all, you’ve got tourism. We are old enough to remember walking into a tasting room in the Napa Valley and seeing the owner behind the counter. Of course, that was the 70s. That was light years from where it is now. It is an industry unto itself. We read one article that said ‘wine country’ (however they defined it) had more visitors than Disneyland in the last year. How will all of this destruction and relocation affect that aspect?
This is a nasty situation, lives lost, property lost, jobs lost, and more jobs lost by the people that support the people in the industry. The whole industry will feel the sting of something of this magnitude in a number of different ways. It will take weeks to assess the obvious damages, but perhaps a decade or more to see the full, as yet unpredictable impact on the region. However, none of it matters until the winds die down and the fires subside, and that can’t come soon enough.