Many wineries suffered structural damage in the Napa Valley Glass Fire, but the smoke from the California fires could have wider consequences.
The fires, some of which started in the spring and intensified during the summer, range from Washington to Southern California. In California, which withstood a record-breaking season of wildfires, 31 people were killed and more than 4 million acres burned, State officials said.
Most recently, the Glass Fire, which began just over two weeks ago and is nearly contained, according to state officials, has threatened the Napa Valley wine region, destroying some 600 homes and other buildings, including cellars.
In addition to structural damage, smoke from fires can cause the longest lasting losses. Smoking can damage wine grapes and make any wine made from contaminated grapes unfit to drink, let alone sell it. California accounted for 85% of the wine produced in the United States – 684.9 million gallons – in 2018, according to WineAmerica: The National Association of American Wineries.
Washington comes in second, with about 2%, and Oregon is fourth. New York is in third place with about 0.7%.
Smoke hovers through charred trees on the hill behind a vineyard in Napa Valley, California on September 28. (Photo: SAMUEL CORUM, AFP via Getty Images)
The grapes for white wines and pinot noir had largely been harvested before major fires, said Gladys Horiuchi, director of media relations for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. “The reds are basically trying to understand.”
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, collectively, account for about 11 percent of California’s wine volume, he said. “The rest of the state has remained virtually intact,” Horiuchi said.
Consumers shouldn’t worry about the wine supply or the quality of the wine, he said. “There may not be that many brands, but as far as wine is available, it won’t be a problem,” said Horiuchi.
As for consumer concerns about wine quality, he said, “wineries simply won’t risk their reputation by producing wine that isn’t of the quality consumers expect.”
Others in the wine community are concerned about potential supply and prices. It is impossible to quantify how much wine will be produced from this year’s harvest because winemakers face obstacles to test the quality of their grapes.
Laboratories testing crops for smoke contamination are inundated with proposals. This leaves winegrowers and wineries to decide whether to harvest the crops and who bears the costs in the event of crop deterioration.
“People don’t know what to do,” said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. “At the moment we have no data on the amount of wine grapes that have not been harvested due to smoke exposure problems, but I can tell you that it is very significant.”
The situation is drastic enough that coastal states seek federal disaster relief for winemakers. “All West Coast winemakers and winemakers fear the challenges posed by these fires and exposure to smoke,” said Aguirre, whose association is among those who signed a letter sent to the region’s congressional delegation.
Many wineries are “still in the process of evaluating the potential impact of smoking on their grapes,” the Napa Valley Vintners, who represent 550 Napa Valley wineries, said in a statement sent to USA TODAY. “Although it is too early to predict the extent of the damage that smoke and fires will have on the 2020 vintage, the harvest will be lower than usual.”
Will consumers see higher prices?
The year started with a surplus of wine, Aguirre said, then the coronavirus pandemic put a stopper in restaurant, bar and sports facility sales. Domestic consumption has increased, but it remains to be seen how sales will compensate.
“Eventually, less wine will be produced, but it’s not clear to me that prices will go up,” he said.
Others have argued that higher prices are more likely. The fires in 2017, which led to crop losses, will accentuate pressure on wine supply, said Alex Andrews, owner of Personal Wine (personalwine.com), a winery and retailer specializing in gifts and wine personalization.
“Anytime you have a catastrophic loss twice in a five-year period, it affects everything,” he said. “They are definitely starting to raise the price now.”
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Firefighters from the Fremont Fire Department Engine 558 saved an American flag from the flames at the Fairwinds Estate Winery in Calistoga, California.
Wineries are likely to raise the prices of their vintage library wines by perhaps 20% and keep increases on future versions of 10% to 15%, Andrews said. Compounding the need to raise prices are tariffs on supplies such as glass for wine bottles, much of which is produced in China and Mexico, he said.
Less Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon will likely emerge from the 2020 harvest, said Neil Kaplan, attorney and managing partner of Cork Counsel, who deals with wine appraisals and other collector services.
“This could spark interest in newer vintages,” said Kaplan. “There are disastrous reports like 80% of Napa’s taxis not made this year. I think it’s probably a little high. But the Glass Fire, especially in northern Napa, was awful, and half of Napa is cabernet. “.
Instead of an expected surplus in the bulk wine market, “this has all gone out the window,” he said. “So where we thought we were seeing a reduction, we are actually seeing price increases.”
However, the average consumer needn’t worry, Kaplan said. “In general, I rarely advise people to rush into something, especially depending on how global your vision of wine is,” he said.
“Napa is very important in California and very important for the United States, but there is a great world of wine out there,” said Kaplan. “If, of course, you are totally focused on the Napa taxi, you may have to react. But the world is full of great wines, and there is an abundance of them.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.
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