Volatile Times for CA Wine

In late summer of 2020, Steve Sangiacomo was excited. The vintage was shaping up to be an exceptional one. But then on 16 August, in the midst of a summer heatwave, a barrage of dry lightning exceeding hundreds of strikes per hour spread throughout the state, and within 36 hours 585 wildfires were burning, three of which quickly grew to hundreds of thousands of acres while funnelling smoke directly into Napa and Sonoma counties.

‘Our Chardonnay ended up being fine’, says Sangiacomo, ‘but we were only able to harvest about 10% of our Pinot Noir. We lost the other 90%.’ The Sangiacomos, one of Sonoma’s largest independent growers, ended up with only around 30% of their normal harvest tonnage. 

His family was not alone.

‘In October of 2020, we did a comprehensive survey of our local grape growers to better understand the impact of the wildfires on the 2020 crop’, says Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. ‘We were also able to estimate that we were only going to harvest about 10% of our county-wide Pinot Noir crop as grape growers and wineries were not going to risk producing a Sonoma County wine that was not up to our world-class wine standards.’

According to Kruse, the fires more than halved the value of Sonoma County’s harvest, resulting in losses of over $300 million.

Towards the end of August 2020 in Santa Barbara, away from almost all the smoke, Nicholas Miller’s phone began ringing off the hook. Miller’s family owns and farms the more than 900 acres (364 ha) at Bien Nacido Vineyards, one of the most prominent and well-respected sources of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah in California.

‘It seems like everyone was calling to see if there were grapes available’, recalls Miller.

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Image of Moscato harvest in Lodi by George Rose.