There are many factors that conspire to make California almost uniquely susceptible to fire. In the last several years, fires in Sonoma and Napa counties have severely affected the quality of the fruit coming off vineyards. The Livermore Valley has been lucky in that it isn’t surrounded by a lot of trees and inaccessible areas where fires start and thrive. 2020, in addition to being the year of COVID, racial unrest, and a damaged economy, has added nearby blazes to the menu.
The SCU Complex fire was started on August 16th by rare dry lightning strikes and has burned more than 360,000 acres as of this writing. It is one of the largest fires in California history sending plumes of noxious smoke that blanket much of the East Bay.
Smoke in the sky will diffuse UV radiation, sending less energy down to the leaves of plants, and lengthening the amount of time it takes to get fruit ripe. This occurred in 2017 and was one of the factors that contributed to overall quality. It is the smoke, though, that can cause irreversibly negative effects on grapes. There are a number of by-products of wood smoke that can be absorbed into grapes and cause acrid, intensely smoky flavors that ruin the vintage. The amount of smoke it takes to get to this point isn’t quantifiable, so we will end up doing some small ferments to see how much, if any, smoke taint is present in the wine.
Much of winemaking is about hope…hope for a good harvest, hope for few mistakes in the cellar, hope for Mother Nature’s cooperation. We are hoping that Hope will be enough to rescue 2020.