When Smoke Gets in Your Wine
By Benjamin Wallace
Deer Park was just leveled,” Alan Viader recalled. It was a morning in mid-February, and we were on the crest of the hill overlooking the main vineyard at Viader Winery, a 4,000-case direct-to-consumer producer founded by Viader’s mother, Delia, in Napa in the late 1980s.
Viader was talking about the Glass Fire, which had started before dawn on September 27, 2020. The fire originated near the winery and quickly made its way around the reservoir at its foot, then started burning up the hill, accelerated by dry grass on the vineyard floor and pushed along by the wind. Viader was at his home 15 miles south of the winery, and when he was finally able to get to the property the following night, fallen trees on the ground were still burning. Aboveground, a storage building had been incinerated, as had an irrigation building full of pumps, tanks, and pipes. The Glass Fire was not fully extinguished for 23 days. Afterward, Viader and his crew went vine by vine, cutting into each one to check its health and make sure the sap was flowing. Most of the Cabernet Franc vines survived because they were further from the flames, but the vines of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which anchor the Viaders’ wine, were decimated.
Considering that it was the worst wildfire ever to strike Napa and that his winery had been at the center of it, Viader had been, in many respects, lucky. A little over a month earlier, another blaze — the LNU Lightning Complex Fire — had begun to burn ten miles away from his vineyard, and Viader, anxious about the possibility of more flames, rushed to harvest the crop, pulling all-nighters to pick the grapes as soon as they were ripe. By the time the Glass Fire arrived, the bulk of his grapes was already fermenting in concrete tanks underground, unharmed. The Viaders had always kept their trees pruned and limbed and clear of buildings, and the barn survived, as did the all-concrete winery and stone tasting building. But one and a half years later, as we walked the property, there were still signs of damage: ember holes in a metal sign in front of the tasting room, trees standing but stripped of bark. In the vineyard, rows of trellis wires slashed down toward the reservoir. Here and there, a T-shaped vine hugged a trellis, but most were empty. At the end of some of the rows were bundles of dried vines that had recently been pruned, but they were nowhere near the volume that would be heaped there in a normal year.
Viader is still going back and forth with his insurance company over how much of his losses it will cover. Until 2020, vineyards themselves, being lush and irrigated and manicured, were considered firebreaks not requiring extensive coverage. Like a lot of other winemakers in his situation, Viader didn’t get his policy renewed. The best he can hope for is a much smaller umbrella courtesy of the state’s FAIR Plan program, which he says won’t insure more than $3 million.
After the Glass Fire, Viader began preparing for the next time. We passed a pile of what looked like industrial-strength Super Soakers: They were “water axes,” gas-powered, high-pressure pumps with fire-hose nozzles that can shoot a blast of flame-dousing water a hundred feet. At the winery’s front gate, he had posted a reflective sign listing the main features of the property (one residence, one winery, x number of tanks, the locations where fire engines could turn around) and other information for firefighters. In January, Viader enrolled in the local firefighting academy to become a volunteer, and today he wore a fire-dispatch scanner on his belt. The road we were walking on was going to be widened, he told me, to give fire trucks easier access. “Now that I’m driving one,” Viader said, “I know exactly what they need.”
However diligent Viader’s preparations for flames, there’s much less he can do to guard against smoke, which can come from anywhere, including the properties of less fire-savvy winemakers. Back in 2017, the Tubbs Fire steered clear of his vineyards, but two blocks of his Cabernet Sauvignon were still hit by smoke. Viader experimented with a few methods to mitigate the impact or mask it — trying various yeasts, fermentation temperatures, and oaks and adding tannins — and still ended up selling the wine in the bulk market that year.
When fires swept through Northern California in 2020, casting shifting palls of smoke for more than two months, other winemakers were forced to make agonizing decisions about whether to even bother producing their wines. Napa has the most expensive farmland in the U.S., and the surest way to profit is to make pricey bottles of Cabernet; once you’re selling a luxury product, though, even minor imperfections can be fatal. “Maybe at $20 you’re okay with a little smoke impact,” said Jacobson, who, at the time, was a winemaker at Joel Gott Wines, “but at the $200 price point, you’re not okay with any.” One consulting winemaker estimated to Wine Spectator that only 20 percent of the Napa 2020 crop would be bottled. Some wineries didn’t make any wine at all, while others made only a fraction of their usual output or sold it to mass producers instead of under their own labels. Some wineries improvised — Hangar 1 made a vodka called Smoke Point from tainted Napa grapes, and Boich Family Cellar turned its grapes into brandy — but California’s wine industry, by one estimate, suffered $3.7 billion in losses in 2020. Many vineyards and wineries that are the source of California’s fabled Cabs became uninsurable.
In the time-shifted reality of winemaking, for the next few years Viader has wine to sell. The 2018s are only just now being released. The 2019s are in the cellar, bottled and being labeled. Soon, the 2020 vintage will be bottled too. During the LNU Lightning Complex Fire that August, the high winds pushed most of the smoke away from Viader, but on the fourth day, his grapes were briefly exposed to it. “To be sure and extra careful,” Viader said, he sprayed the grapes coming out of the vineyard with ozone water. He also shortened the time the juice had contact with the skins and fermented the wine at lower temperatures, another technique for reducing extraction of smoke compounds from the skin into the juice. The wines, he said, came out great, but the 2020 vintage may be the last normal one for a while; it will take around four years for the replanted vines to grow back.
When he started talking about Cabernet losing its throne, Petroski said, “my nickname became Doomsday Dan.” Today, lots of Napa wineries are undertaking similar experiments. Viader told me that, after the Glass Fire, he started shifting his wines away from the Parker-favored powerhouse style and back toward the fresher, more acidic, lower-alcohol style his mother had made when she was first starting out; these wines can be made from grapes picked earlier, shortening their exposure to fire risk. And though he was less pessimistic about the future of Cabernet, Viader was setting aside 10 percent of the vineyard to experiment with varieties like Malbec, Grenache, Tempranillo, and Touriga Nacional — “all hardy varieties from arid areas of the world,” he said. “Kind of thinking ahead for the climate.” “It’s recognized now as an existential threat,” Petroski said. His peers, he has noticed, are “weaning themselves off Cab or looking at What are the future options?”
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