Fires Still a Concern in Carmel Valley, Other Regions Spared

Winemakers must wait until harvest to test grapes for taint

by Andrew Adams
wine vineyard sobranes fire smoke harvest
The Soberanes Fire in Monterey County, Calif., had grown to nearly 70,000 acres as of this morning. Photo: Cal Fire

San Rafael, Calif.—Since destroying one vineyard in Monterey County, the Soberanes Fire has continued to blaze uncontrolled since late July. The fire has scorched nearly 70,000 acres, and Cal Fire reports it is only 50% contained.

The fire is in an especially rugged part of Monterey County near Big Sur, making it difficult to contain but also keeping the fire and smoke away from the majority of the county’s vineyards.

That was not the case for Big Sur Vineyard, which was destroyed July 25. The fire also has destroyed 57 homes, caused three injuries and claimed the life of a bulldozer operator helping to control the fire. Cal Fire has tracked the cause back to an illegal campfire.

While more wineries and vineyards don’t appear to be threatened by the flames, the smoke continues to be a worry. According to the Wines Vines Analytics winery database, Monterey County is home to 78 wineries, and 19 of those have a zip code of 93924, which would put them in or near Carmel Valley, the appellation closest to the fire.

Wines & Vines
has been in touch with a few winemakers there who have reported smoke in their vineyards but as yet don’t know if there’s been any contamination from it.

‘Persistent’ smoke in the Carmel Valley
Dean De Korth is the winemaker and director of production for Bernardus Vineyards & Winery, which produces around 50,000 cases per year and owns 200 vineyard acres. He said the winery has 7 acres in the lower Carmel Valley about evenly split between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as about 50 acres in the upper valley (the warmer Cachagua Valley) that is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties.

He told Wines & Vines in an Aug. 10 email that he’s sending off grape samples for lab analysis and will test them again closer to harvest. “There has been significant smoke here, but some days are worse than others. At times the air seems clear and relatively smoke-free, but other times it's very smoky, so we will see what the status is,” he said.

After recently touring the winery’s other grape sources in the Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations, however, De Korth is “very optimistic regarding quality for 2016. They have had very minimal smoke exposure.”

Jack Galante is the president of Galante Family Winery that produces about 5,000 cases per year and has 40 acres of vineyards in the Carmel Valley. Galante grows mainly Bordeaux varieties and is most concerned about the thinner skinned grapes. “We have had persistent smoke in our region for several weeks, although it is dissipating now. We have not done any testing yet, as we are waiting for the smoke to clear entirely. There is likely some smoke taint, especially with our thinner skinned varietals, but as of yet we don’t know if it will be within manageable limits,” he said in an email. “We will test the grapes as they continue to ripen and we are closer to harvest, and will make our decisions on a variety-by-variety basis at that time.”

Galante recalled in 2008, when the valley was covered in smoke from the Basin Complex Fire, that the wines from that vintage “were quite intriguing and are still sought after,” and while it appears too early to know for certain how the Soberanes Fire will affect the 2016 harvest, the grower is just hoping for the best.

Other parts of Monterey County not affected
Winery and grower associations in the region have been quick to announce that it does not appear as if the fire will leave a lasting impact on the 2016 vintage.

The Monterey County Vintners & Growers released a statement saying that the county’s geography—namely the large marine canyon extending from the Monterey Bay to the Pacific Ocean—creates regular and strong winds that have blocked the smoke from heading inland to the larger appellations such as the Salinas Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco and others.

A day later, the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans group released its own statement that the appellation’s 3,200 acres of Pinot Noir and 2,100 acres of Chardonnay are doing just fine and have not been exposed to smoke. Growers there expected to start picking grapes in early to mid-September.

On Aug. 11, the group announced that harvest had begun in the appellation with Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. Scott Caraccioli, of Caraccioli Cellars said 2016 is the tenth harvest the winery has picked for sparkling wine. “The initial press showcased powerful clean fruit-complexity with ideal acidity throughout. As our testing indicated, there were no signs of smoke issues from the fire on the coast. We'll be pulling the next four nights for our sparkling program; I have very high expectations for the '16 vintage,” he said.   

Steve McIntyre is the owner of Monterey Pacific Inc., and farms more than 12,000 acres of vineyards in Monterey County. In his own news release about the fire, he reported that the majority of the smoke has kept away from the county’s vineyards because of prevailing winds. “In the Salinas Valley, where we do most of our farming, the same dynamics that create our windy and foggy conditions have also created a protective inversion layer that keeps the smoke isolated well above ground. On top of that, our strong afternoon winds cleanse our air of residual smoke that has made its way into our region. Hopefully, the fire will burn out soon and we can enjoy what looks to be a successful growing season.”

McIntyre Vineyards is also donating 30% of all sales revenues from its 2013 estate Chardonnay to help with the cost of firefighting and rebuilding.

Cold Fire nearly contained

The Cold Fire, which was centered in Yolo County, hasn’t received as much attention in the press but still burnt nearly 10,000 acres. The fire is near Napa County but relatively far to the east. On Aug. 11, Cal Fire reported the fire was 99% contained.

The owners of Berryessa Gap Vineyards in Winters, Calif., reported that the fire never came within 1 mile of the estate vineyard, but it has left ash and smoke. “While our facilities are safe, we are dealing with quite a bit of smoke and ash both at our facility and in the vineyard.  We are thankful for the fire fighters and pray for their continued safety,” winery owner Corinne Martinez said. “This is the third year in a row we have had a fire west of us in the Berryessa Gap, so unfortunately we have seen this before and are used to making necessary adjustments as best we can.”

Lake County, which borders Napa County, was the scene of three small fires, but all of those were mostly contained. On Aug. 10, Cal Fire also released the cause of the Valley Fire, which destroyed a large swath of Lake County in late summer 2015.

The fire burnt a few vineyards, but as it struck in September of an early vintage, the county’s grape harvest was largely spared. That, however, was just a tiny bit of silver lining on a very dark cloud.

In all, the Valley Fire burnt more than 76,000 acres, killed four people, injured four firefighters and destroyed 1,955 structures. According to Cal Fire, at the fire’s peak it required more than 4,000 firefighters and cost $56 million to extinguish, making it the third most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The agency’s investigation determined that an arcing electrical connection to a hot tub on the porch of a home caused the blaze. The connection had not been made to code, according to the report. The house where the hot tub was located suffered some damage but was not destroyed.



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