While no one in Northern California will ever forget the wine country fires of October 2017, we’re also ready to rebuild and focus on what’s ahead, instead of what’s behind.
This is especially true when it comes to the wines of that vintage. In much of Napa and Sonoma, the grapes had been picked before the fateful night of October 8, when the fires began. That was thanks in part to the extraordinary heat throughout the regions that began on Labor Day weekend.
That unlikely, unwelcome and sustained heat made for plenty of complaining, but it also sped up ripening and prompted pick dates that, for many winemakers, were earlier than the norm.
It resulted in much of the wine already being tucked in by early October, especially whites and early-ripening reds like Pinot Noir. Even in Napa Valley, where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, the Napa Valley Vintners estimate that 90% of the 2017 grape tonnage was harvested before the fires hit. What wasn’t in, and was exposed to smoke, is under meticulous evaluation before being released.
Though the vintage was a tricky one to manage, it was still anticipated to be of excellent overall quality.
Don’t just take my word for it: In May, the fourth annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction raised a record $840,700, based largely around 2017 Pinot Noir lots. Barrels of 2017 Pinot Noir from AldenAlli, Arista Winery, Benovia Winery and Williams Selyem were among the top draws, alongside two 2017 Chardonnays.
The quality was outstanding and helped allay fears of smoke-tainted wine. They showed the vintage’s high level of quality to hundreds of trade members, as though the vintage was a tricky one to manage, it was still anticipated to be of excellent overall quality before the fires added an unexpected question mark to the final equation.
“The bottom-line reality is I do have wines that have smoke character, and it’s not very pleasant,” says Chris Carpenter, who makes Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota and Mount Brave, all Napa Valley red wines, many of them mountain grown.
Carpenter sources from vineyards on just about every mountain appellation of the Napa Valley. He estimates that he’d harvested about 50% of his grapes by the time of the fires, and that the other half was ready to pick.
His hardest-hit vineyards were on Mount Veeder, where fire was close and smoke surrounded the area for days.
“I’m not going to bottle that wine, and, based on conversations I’ve been having with colleagues across the Napa Valley, nobody wants to take the chance professionally, personally or industrially,” says Carpenter. “It’d be foolhardy to even take a chance.”
Conversely, Carpenter believes his Howell Mountain fruit is fine. He thinks that the smoke was less intense by the time it hit the area, though he’s still analyzing the wine and won’t bottle anything for another year. Until then, he’s focused on making the most of what was an extraordinary vintage.
“It tasted outstanding,” he says. “Up until the fires, it was, in my view, one of the best vintages we’ve had. Anything that’s released is almost guaranteed to be of the highest quality. The caliber of the grapes is something we haven’t seen in a while. There’ll just be very little of it.”
Though production sizes might have been hampered, the wines are showing extremely well. So don’t be reluctant to seek out your favorites. Instead, buy with confidence that you’re acquiring a great wine from a high-quality vintage.