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Wine Country Will Survive

Columnist: Tim Carl
December, 2017 Issue

Tim Carl
All articles by columnist

The fires in Northern California Wine Country are tragic beyond comprehension and resulted in an obscenely too-high number of people losing their lives. Beyond the loss of life, thousands of families’ homes and hundreds of businesses were damaged or destroyed, and countless animals and forests have been decimated.

Heat waves
The 2017 vintage faced challenges, even before the fires. In early July, the vintage looked to be another “vintage of the decade,” but then one of the biggest heat waves on record hit. The high temperatures soared and stayed in the triple digits for weeks, shriveling grapes as the vines shut down or slowed their metabolism.
The ultra-high temperatures reduced visitation to Wine Country, with many tourists and locals opting to forgo the squelching heat and either staying indoors or heading someplace cooler. Meanwhile all of the vegetation encouraged by the wet winter became dry and brittle. 
Relief from the heat came at the end of September, when a cooling trend materialized, and just in time because tasting rooms and restaurants make upward of a quarter of their yearly revenue during harvest. With the first grapes harvested and many restaurants and hotels becoming full again, everything was getting back to normal.
Then there was fire
The raging fires descended on Sunday night, October 8, 2017, and caused what has been called one of the worst fire disasters in California’s history. As a result, the issue of a further reduction in tourism has affected nearly all local industries. The direct impact of the fires on the wine business includes damaged vineyards and winery equipment, the fallout associated with days without power in the middle of harvest, huge numbers of displaced and traumatized employees, and the threat of the dreaded smoke taint. 
One of the initial issues faced by vintners after the fires was to decide if they’d pick the remaining grapes, most of which had been covered with a layer of smoke and ash that can impart a campfire aroma to the final wine called smoke taint.
“Some growers just said it’s not worth the effort or risk to life and limb to bring in fruit that may or may not produce the level of wine desired,” says Roger Boulton, professor of enology in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis. “For those grapes that were harvested post-fire there remain some unanswered questions because we have never had a situation like this before,” he adds. “In the past, our experiences with smoke taint have been caused by fires that happened weeks prior to harvest. So most of the studies that have looked into the phenomenon are based on different conditions.”
 “Wines already in the tank should be fine,” Boulton says. “And for the grapes that were still on the vines there are some tools that might be useful in combating smoke taint.”
Some of these tools include keeping pressed lots separate, new filtering techniques, using flash detente and making sure to conduct the color-extraction process as gently and as quickly as possible.
What’s next?
It’s reasonable to feel overwhelmed and believe that because of the intensity and breadth of trauma and destruction it will take years to bounce back. To be sure there will be businesses that are unable to maintain through this shock and will close, move or sell. There will be individuals who find it impossible to live here with even less housing stock available, which tends to send rents and prices higher, even if those displaced can find available homes on the market. It will also be tempting for some to take advantage of these predicaments and raise prices. 
However, there are so many others who, instead of taking advantage, are providing relief, and I expect that trend of goodwill to continue. Many people and organizations have plans to visit to help support the community. And the community itself has rallied, working on many fronts to help bring back business to pre-2017 fire levels. As a region we face many challenges, and the road ahead will be made even more difficult because we see hints that the broader economy is slowing, too. But as the ubiquitous signs and banners plastered in shop windows and along roads even before the fires were put out proclaimed, “There's more love in the air than smoke.” Apparently this sentiment extends beyond the confines of our region.



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