Since Sunday night, more than 17 devastating wildfires have been blazing through Northern California, torching neighborhoods and land in Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Rosa. Officials are calling the disaster one of the most destructive fire emergencies in the state’s history.
The fires have destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, caused over 100 people to go missing, and sadly taking the lives of 23 people. And one can’t help but wonder about its destructive effect on so much of California’s wine country, especially because wine is a key element to their economy.
Obviously, California’s wine will be affected by this tragedy, possibly in some surprising ways. Read on to find out more.
Crunching numbers on California’s wine production
California has a $58 billion wine industry. While it’s still not clear exactly how the fires will impact that industry, experts estimate that the damage will take years to recover from. As of October 11, the fires have burned down at least five Napa Valley wineries or have significantly damaged them, and they have destroyed one in Sonoma County. There’s no telling how bad the damage will be by the time everything is contained.
Family history going up in flames
The first vines were planted in California as early as the late 1700s. By 1890, the wine industry was producing more than 10.9 million cases per year. In the 1970s, production and sales of California wines reached record levels. It’s been a booming industry ever since.
The majority of wineries in California are owned by families who have passed them on through generations. To see so much family history go up in smoke is devastating.
What happens next?
Wildfires of this nature will certainly have an impact on wine production and tourism. As upsetting as that is, that’s to be expected. But once the dust has settled and wine production is back in full swing, there are other things to consider, like how price — and more importantly, taste — will be affected.
When it comes to taste, expect the unexpected
Wine grapes need soil to grow, and that soil has a great effect on the taste of the wine. Typically, its pH matters most, which is an objectively measurable variable that is both a part of wine taste and a proxy for soil fertility. That’s why Oregon wine tends to taste different than California wine, for example.
So if the grapes are growing in smoky soil, how will the wine taste? You can probably guess.
Smoky flavors in wine are a possibility in the future. The effect, called smoke taint, occurs when vines and berries absorb compounds in wildfire smoke. According to a smoke taint primer from ETS Laboratories, the off-flavors are usually described as “smoky” and “bacon” and can linger on the palate long after you swallow the wine.
Preparing for the inevitable
Although we won’t know how the fires will affect crops for quite a while, it does seem that some smoke taint is inevitable. Some grapes have yet to be harvested, so they have no choice but to breathe it all in.
There are a few things that can be done to help minimize the effects of the smoke taint. Because grape skins accumulate smoke-taint associated phenols, reducing skin contact time can help reduce the severity of the smokiness in the wine. But it’s tough to get rid of smoke taint without taking away the character of the wine, and the specific character is what keeps people buying California wine in the first place.
No need to panic (yet)
The good news is, it may not be as bad as it looks. The wineries will treat the soil, replant, and see what happens. There’s no guarantee that the smoke taint will significantly impact the flavor of the wine.
And consumers shouldn’t assume that wine prices will go up, either. It’s a possibility, especially in the cases of the small wineries that only produce a few thousand cases per year, but the larger wineries are probably financially stable enough to handle the effects of the fire.
Right now, we’re all just hoping the fires are fully contained as soon as possible and no one else gets hurt.
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