Double whammy for grape growers and wineries
Smoke taint and grape glut make it near-impossible to do business
In a good year, growing grapes and making and selling wine is a tough way for small producers to make a living. The multi-layered challenges of 2020 have made this year nearly impossible. Some businesses, like Sunce’s tasting room in Kenwood, closed their doors. Others may follow. “We’re very grateful for the wine club members and followers of our wine we have met at our Kenwood outpost, but we’ve decided to consolidate and focus on our main location on Olivet Road in Santa Rosa,” said Janae Franicevic, owner of Sunce Winery.
Tasting room traffic is down due to this year’s twin tragedies of COVID-19 and fires throughout Northern California in August and September. Tourists arriving by the busload have been replaced with fewer, more local visitors according to Courtney Emer of Mayo Family Winery. Nationwide, restaurant closures and restrictions on indoor dining have resulted in a dramatic reduction in wholesale wine distribution, according to Bettina Sichel of Laurel Glen Vineyard.
Small, independent grape growers have been hit especially hard this year. Many vineyards with long-term contracts received the devastating news from wineries who regularly purchased their annual harvest stating that they would skip 2020. Uncertainty in the quality of the fruit due to smoke and ash in the air late in the growing season, compounded by large harvests in 2018 and 2019 meant that wineries didn’t want or need to take a risk on this year’s fruit quality.
“2018 was a monster crop, so there is too much fruit in the pipeline,” said Keith Kunde, owner of dirt farmer & co, which provides vineyard management and other agricultural services for over 60 ranches in Sonoma and Napa counties. Kunde is custom crushing some clients’ white grapes for the bulk market, and even that is a risk, because in addition to the cost of crushing the grapes, the custom crush facility may charge anywhere from nine to 40 cents a gallon per month to store the juice until it can be sold.
Prices are down as well. “I sold 45,000 gallons of 2020 Chardonnay for $4 per gallon that would usually sell for $12-$20 per gallon in a normal year,” said Kunde.
Other growers, such as Beresini in Carneros, will be making Chardonnay in 2020 rather than selling their fruit to larger producers.
The presence of guaiacol or “smoke taint,” in fruit was a problem in 2017, and it is a much bigger problem this time around. As Sichel explained, “The big difference we now realize is the timing of the smoke. In 2017, the fires that struck Glen Ellen, Sonoma and Napa Valleys came in early October, when the grapes were ready to harvest. In fact, since Cabernet is usually the last grape variety to be picked, it was only Cabernet Sauvignon that was affected by smoke taint in 2017. In 2020, the smoke started affecting air quality before any grapes were picked (except perhaps for sparkling wine.) The smoke was never as thick as in 2017, but it was a constant presence during the most crucial ripening period – the period after veraison, when the grapes change color and start accumulating sugar at a rapid rate.”
And tests for smoke taint were hard to come by. Even if a grower could find a lab to conduct the tests, results didn’t come back until after harvest. Data wasn’t available to make the difficult, but at least informed, decision to not harvest, so some took a gamble and will bottle 2020 with uncertain results.
“ETS, the main laboratory serving the north coast wine industry, quickly went from a week-long turn around to a month-long turn around. Stories circulated of wineries sending grape samples as far away as Australia to be tested,” said Sichel.
After COVID-19 closures, and unhealthy air due to the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Sonoma Valley in August, wineries were starting to see a pick-up in tasting room traffic in September.
“We were sold out most weekends, but the Glass Fire changed that,” said Andrew Ewing, Tasting Room Manager at Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood. That hint of a turnaround ended abruptly on Sept. 27 when the Glass Fire stormed through the North Sonoma Valley from Napa. Since reopening, tasting rooms have been full, but operators are uncertain about how to host guests once the weather cools. Both Ewing of Kunde and Emer of Mayo Family Winery are considering whether tenting outside areas will work for guests in the winter.
Let’s raise our glasses and hope for a better 2021.