Vintage 2020 — A view from the left coast

Many have observed that wine contains the bottled memories of Summers past. While it may be more technically correct to say that wine reflects the conditions of the Spring and Fall far more than the Summer, there is a poetic truth in the sentiment. In the case of the 2020 vintage, the bottles when they are opened may yield a glass filled more with ashes and rue than the expected sweet nostalgia. I have never seen a vintage here on the West Coast where so many vintners choose not to harvest at all. Entire appellations despaired. It is a bleak sight to see the many clusters shriveled, dusty, and funereal abandoned on the vines as the leaves turn yellow and drop. They seem more like mourners all dressed in black accompanying the departed to the cemetery.

This Spring the COVID pandemic appeared around the same time as the shoots were emerging from the vines. One of the great benefits of winemaking was that as an agricultural endeavor it was allowed to continue operating during shutdowns. All ag related work was considered “essential”. I’m under no illusions about how essential wine production is compared to food or healthcare. Still, I was so grateful to be able to continue going to the winery and vineyards and leading some semblance of a normal life when so many were trapped at home alone and unoccupied during the Spring.

The business of selling wine was disrupted profoundly especially the small production fine wine sector of it that traditionally focuses on restaurant sales. Like most vintners I spend a lot of time and money in restaurants and many of my close friends are in the restaurant business. It was and is heartbreaking to see the pandemic’s continuing effects on them. The restaurant business, always tough, has never in my memory been so difficult.

The season continued as it inexorably will. Spring led into Summer and I began to have ideas about this harvest. I couldn’t help myself. Each growing season is a puzzle unique unto itself to be mulled over as the Fall approaches. The conditions during flowering were ideal so seed count and berry size were sure to be large. It seemed that saignee might be useful for the reds this year. All of the varieties bloomed on top of one another. There’s normally a pretty sizable gap between Pinot Noir flowering and Syrah flowering, but not this year. There seemed to be the potential for a compressed harvest.

The summer was mild without any really hot weather. Nor was it particularly foggy and cold. All seemed good — briefly. In mid-August, the week bottling finished up for the Summer all hell broke loose. A rare tropical weather system carrying lightning swept up through coastal California. It ignited dozens of fires including a huge one in Salinas about 100 miles north of where I live in San Luis Obispo. This fire was only a mile or so away from the vineyard that supplies Pinot Noir for Campion my personal bottling. These vines were not picked. The grower told me the smoke was so thick that he didn’t see the sun for five days. The proximity and duration of smoke to the vines contaminated them beyond redemption. We pulled some samples to test for the Chemical markers of smoke a week after the fire, and found them. But the grower had already decided to drop his entire vintage on the ground. Another huge fire that was set by arson on the coast south of Big Sur shortly after contributed yet more smoke to our local area — unbelievable!

Here at home in the Edna Valley and south the smoke was less powerfully flavored. The further away you are from the source of the smoke the less risk there is of contamination as time and sunlight break down the objectional flavorants. But even far away from any of the fires we still detected by analysis traces of smoke compounds in the grapes. I doubt the white wines we made will be affected but there may be some slight background of smoke in the reds. It’s far too early to tell at the moment. It’ll be late Spring before any confidant statements can be made about the local reds.

Shortly after the fires started the first of what would turn out to be four severe heat waves arrived. The second one in early September was particularly brutal with a local weather station registering 120F briefly. Some blocks of Pinot Noir collapsed. Others were picked before they were fully ripe. Most of the whites were picked before this scorching. Smoke continued off and on for the better part of a month. It was only during the last couple weeks of harvest that clear air and more seasonal temperatures returned.

We got off lightly here. Napa had an enormous fire that was started by the same lightning storm. It burned mostly to the east of the valley. Then a few weeks later another fire broke out in the Howell Mtn. area. This swept through Napa and over to Santa Rosa. Hundreds of homes and dozens of vineyards and wineries were destroyed. Some good friends of mine lost everything. This was too horrible to contemplate. What a nightmare of a vintage!

Oregon and Washington suffered fires and smoke contamination as well. Many opted to not pick at all or to pick less red wine which is more likely to show smoke taint. This was true for Napa and large portions of Monterey as well. There were very few west coast appellations not impacted by the fires.

A vintage to be forgotten with all its losses and sadness. Fortunately, our minds are well adapted to the gradual erasure of pain so all of these tragedies will cease to trouble us as time passes. We’ll dream of other things. Except when we broach a bottle of the 2020 vintage at some point in the future and perhaps a faint whiff of smoke will bring it all back again. I doubt it will evoke the memory of the Summer, but rather an autumnal melancholy will waft over us. Aroma, ever memory’s muse, will haunt us from the glass.

Larry has been reading and writing for a long time. He’s mostly known as a winemaker’s winemaker.

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