California 2020: A Lawyer’s Vintage

The 2020 vintage was, quite simply, a disaster for California wine. But until recently, quantifying just how badly the fires affected harvest has been difficult. The wine industry is understandably touchy when it comes to communicating what is perceived to be bad news about a vintage.

Most organisations such as the Napa Valley Vintners association or Sonoma County Winegrowers association quite deliberately seem to avoid using the words ‘smoke taint’, preferring to speak about ‘smoke exposure’ or merely offer bromides such as ‘every one of our members made some wine in 2020’, which after a vintage like 2020 seems the equivalent of, ‘it’s just a flesh wound’.

Some wine producers, though, don’t feel the need to pull any punches.

‘I’m not making a single drop of red wine in 2020’, said Chris Carpenter, winemaker for the Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota, Mt. Brave, and Caladan wine labels, all of which are owned by Jackson Family Wines. ‘I started picking and got maybe two-thirds of the way through, and I was thinking to myself we were just wasting money, and so we just stopped.’

Carpenter oversees nearly 400 acres (160 ha) of estate vineyards for Jackson Family Wines in addition to buying an additional 10–20% of his total tonnage every year from outside growers.

‘I’m making wines that sell for $100 to $450 per bottle’, explained Carpenter. ‘There’s just no way I’m going to put out a wine that a collector is going to buy, trusting that it is good, and then have issues four or five years down the line when bound-up smoke compounds have released and it tastes like an ashtray. They’d lose their trust for me, for our wines, and they would never buy again.’

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Image of Dale Harvey’s Pigasus Vineyard wreathed in fog, courtesy of Pigasus Vineyards. Harvey suffered significant losses in 2020 due to smoke.