Residents in the winemaking counties of Mendocino and Lake in Northern California endured yet another fire catastrophe this week. Two separate wildland infernos, the Ranch and River Fires, otherwise known as the Mendocino Complex Fires, have charred 98,000 acres and destroyed 10 homes since they started on Friday, July 27.
Both blazes started dangerously close to Mendocino vineyards, but hot, dry westerly winds quickly pushed the flames east into neighboring Lake County. Most of the burned acreage has been in mountainous terrain with few farms or homes. Vineyards and wineries have been spared from direct damage, sources told Wine Enthusiast late Wednesday, but the possibility of smoke taint on the grapes now ripening hangs in the air.
The River and Ranch Fires
Evacuation orders forced many, especially those around 20-mile-long Clear Lake in Lake County, to shutter their wineries and leave their homes. The Ranch Fire raced toward the town of Upper Lake, on the north side of the lake. The River Fire threatened the community of Lakeport on the west side, about 10 miles away.
Jonathan Walters, director of vineyard and estate operations for Brassfield Estate Winery, had to move his family out of Lakeport to safety on the lake’s eastern side. Walters hoped to get back home last night as 2,677 firefighters worked to contain the blaze.
The owner of Shannon Ridge Family of Wines, Clay Shannon, told Wine Enthusiast, “The Ranch Fire is my largest concern right now. Things are looking better today, but if a north wind kicks up, it could still bring the fire right at us.”
The threat of smoke
In a normal year, Lake County grape growers would be almost ready to start harvesting the first of their 9,500 acres of grapes now. Sauvignon Blanc is often the first variety to be ready, but Shannon said the grape is ripening later than normal this year. Part of the Sauvignon Blanc crop, for which Lake County is well known, has yet to go through veraison, the period in which red-wine grapes turn color and white wine grapes soften and change color slightly. This means that the ideal harvest time remains several weeks away.
The threat of grapes being affected by smoke taint as a result of the fires is a real possibility, but Shannon said the late-ripening would help mitigate that risk. Grapes can take smoke in through their skins, but they absorb more during and after veraison when they are soft and develop sugar ripeness.
“We’re concerned about it, but what we’ve got going for us is that the intense heat we’ve had lately seems to have delayed the ripening,” Shannon said. “It’s turning out to be quite late in Lake County. We grow grapes in the San Joaquin Valley too, and growers there are seeing a similar thing.”
While heat is the key element in encouraging grapes to ripen, viticulturists know that too much heat actually slows or stops the ripening process temporarily because the vines begin to “shut down” physiologically above 100°F. Ironically, the same heat that encouraged the fierce growth of the fires may also be protecting the grapes from unwanted smoky flavors.
There is no rain in the forecast for today or Friday for either county.