Across the U.S., Winemakers Persevere to Harvest Amid Wildfires and the Pandemic

The Walbridge Fire, Santa Rosa, California
The Walbridge Fire, Santa Rosa, California / Alamy

Right now, winemakers across the United States are plowing through harvest season. Unlike years past, the 2020 harvest is unfolding in the middle of a global pandemic and numerous wildfires along the West Coast, which threaten many vineyards in the heart of America’s wine country.

But there’s no pausing Mother Nature. When the grapes are ready, they’re ready. As harvest begins, winemakers discover how this unconventional year has shaped their product. Some have suffered devastating damages from wildfires and face the specter of smoke taint. Regardless of circumstances, their 2020 offerings will stand out in the future.

“2020 will be the pandemic vintage,” says Robert Young, winemaker at Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas. “When these wines are released, we will look back and marvel at how we were able to produce quality wines while implementing strict Covid-19 strategies.”

This year, Bending Branch delayed operations for a month, reconfiguring the bottling line to ensure adequate social distancing and requiring employees to wear masks. “At our local area vineyards, we worked closely with the growers to ensure hand harvesting was safely done with hand washing stations, distancing and mask wearing,” says Young.

Harvest in Texas is nearly done. Despite the delayed start, it will be finished in mid-September, the earliest Bending Branch has ever completed the season. Nearly all its varieties will be commercially available, but in smaller quantities because of freezing conditions in the region last fall, and some hail damage in isolated areas.

“Our two signature grapes, Tannat and Picpoul Blanc, are scant this year,” says Young. “There is not any Sagrantino or Mourvèdre available from our usual sources. Some varieties had small berries and very concentrated pulp, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. The quality of Petite Sirah stands out this year, both in Texas Hill Country and in the Texas High Plains.”

“As winegrowers, we are subject to what Mother Nature sends our way, but we work hard to ensure we will have great fruit.”–Ximena Orrego, winemaker, Atticus Wine

Despite the scope of work involved, harvest is typically a joyous occasion, a moment when the fruits of one’s labor are quite literally on display to see and enjoy. Even before what experts call “unprecedented” wildfires began in California on August 16, the pandemic had changed the harvest.

“Normally harvest is a celebratory experience,” says Justin Willett, winemaker at Lieu Dit Winery in Lompoc, California. “We usually have big lunches with lots of wine, taking in the camaraderie, and celebrating the hard work that is harvest. That is gone this year. We have less people, and social distancing measures in place, so it takes a lot of fun out of harvest.”

Like countless wineries nationwide, the pandemic has also dramatically affected Lieu Dit’s ability to move their product.

“Our distribution has been crushed,” says Willett. “We’ve always taken a lot of pride in selling to mostly restaurants with strong wine programs, but unfortunately, that has totally dried up. The upside is we’ve been able to focus more directly with our customers, meeting our customers where they are, which is not in restaurants, but on virtual tasting events, which has been really positive.”

One positive for Ximena Orrego, winemaker at Atticus Wine in Yamhill, Oregon, is that the size of her winery has made it easier to pivot over the course of the pandemic.

“We have had to make minor adjustments, but we are a small operation and it is easier to adjust,” she explains. “We are expecting less fruit this year due to the cooler weather we had during bloom, but I think the quality will be beautiful. Every year is different, what will be the same is that we will work our hardest to make the best possible Pinot Noir.”

Being in the wine business means being ready for just about anything, and the pandemic underscored the importance of that mantra for Orrego.

“As winegrowers, we are subject to what Mother Nature sends our way, but we work hard to ensure we will have great fruit,” she says. “However, so many things are out of our control. This year that has been emphasized further for me, but I welcome the new vintage with open arms.”

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Many in Oregon have suffered extensive damages due to the wildfires. Simple Machine Winery in Southern Oregon lost its entire vintage to the Almeda Fire earlier this month. But so far, it seems like the quality of the grapes harvested this year will be mostly unaffected, according to Ken Wright, spokesperson for the Yamhill-Carlton Winegrowers Association.

“I have been sampling all over the Valley,” says Wright. “We have 13 vineyards and I’ve been tasting everywhere. I mean, everywhere. I have yet to taste a single berry whose taste is compromised to me.”

Vineyards in the area, however, have pivoted to mechanical harvesting due to the poor air quality.

“We won’t have any workers in the fields,” says Wright. “We expect to have some rain coming. We expect that the skies will clear, and that by Monday we feel certain that we will return to a level that’s safe for everybody to be out and about and working.”

In the Finger Lakes region of New York, one grape in particular has been significantly scaled back due to the pandemic.

“We, and most of the Finger Lakes, are producing less Riesling this year,” says Matt Denci, winemaker at Treleaven Wines. “Many growers have had big buyers back out on them due to the economic uncertainty. Wineries like us, which grow a lot of their own fruit, are looking at either over-producing, producing some late harvest styles to reduce the amount of wine we would have, or not picking.”

On the flip side, the winery has been trying to purchase red grapes “really aggressively” because red grapes in the Finger Lakes are a precious commodity. “Especially from growers worth their salt,” Denci says. “With many wineries cutting back on their grape purchases, this presents an opportunity for us to establish relationships with growers, who otherwise might not have the fruit for us. We are hoping we can then turn those into long-term deals.”

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In Treleaven’s cellar, the pandemic has made hiring trickier. Cellar hands and interns who return for harvests every year are now unable to travel. But Denci said there is a silver lining, too.

“We have had new interest from unexpected places,” he says. “Folks who had their lives turned upside down and were always curious about the production side of wine are jumping in to give it a go. Harvest crews are looking a little different this year.”

The 2020 wines will always conjure up strong feelings for industry members.

“With a harvest like this, it is less about greatness or flaws, and more about a marker of time,” says Denci. “To provide some sense in the moment that the world carries on, and later to serve as a touchstone to remember far different things.”

Published on September 18, 2020
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