Winemaking, Wildfires, and Why The 2020 Vintage Will Be Limited

Every winemaker knows there is only one opportunity a year to achieve success. Harvest is a critical season where timing, care, and luck converge into one (hopefully) perfect moment to handpick the highest quality grapes and turn them into the best wine possible. But what happens when an unforeseen wildfire ambushes that one precious harvest?

The 2020 Glass Fire 

At 3:48 AM on September 27, 2020, a wildfire broke out from an undetermined cause in Northern California and continued its path of devastation for 23 days. Titled the ‘Glass Fire’ due to its origin near Glass Mountain Road in Napa County, the wildfire fell in the middle of the harvest season. After an already tumultuous period marked by drought, heat waves, a global pandemic, and residual smoky conditions from other nearby wildfires, harvest 2020 was wholly disrupted by a relentless blaze.

The event caused sizable damage in almost all directions. Winemakers throughout Napa Valley saw the heartbreaking destruction of their vines and damage to several established wineries and cellars. Unlike some consumer goods, it is impossible to rapidly re-grow grapes. Mother Nature has a schedule that can’t be rushed. Sadly much of the effort poured into the harvest that year was yet another casualty of the wildfire.

No Fire Without Smoke 

Here at Seven Apart, we were fortunate to have sustained no physical damage to our winery. By the time the fires arrived in neighboring areas, our team had completed harvest in our Base Camp vineyard located along the valley floor. This fruit remains of the highest quality and has been used in crafting our 2020 Expedition wine. Still, we certainly felt the impact of the wildfire – particularly in our prized Stags Ridge Vineyard. 

Stags Ridge provides fruit for our three distinct Cabernet Sauvignon wines: Shale, Basalt, and Summit. Due to its higher elevation levels and later harvest date, Stags Ridge Vineyard was hit the hardest by smoke taint. Smoke taint occurs when the grapes in a vineyard are exposed to smoke from nearby wildfires. Yet, it’s not simply a case of residue sitting on the grape. In the aftermath of any fire, the residual smoke that permeates the air carries lignin, a chemical compound released from burning wood. This releases a range of volatile phenols into the wood. These phenols are absorbed by the porous grapes and bind to their sugary compounds, irrevocably altering their flavor. 

Seven Apart’s General Manager Yannick Girardo remembers the shattering realization that the Stag Ridge grapes had been affected:

“When it was safe to head up into the vineyards, the first thing I saw was a heavy layer of smoke just lingering over the vines. A strong smell of burnt wood filled the air, and ash had visibly settled onto the grapes. It was awful to see, as the entire team knew what this could mean,” he reflects. 

The team set about collecting grape samples and headed straight to the cellar. The problem with smoke taint is that it typically only reveals itself during fermentation or – in extreme cases – after the wine has aged.

In our case, the damage was evident very quickly. “When I first tasted the grapes, it didn’t seem like anything was wrong. You can’t actually taste smoke taint. But as soon as we started crushing the grapes, the smoke was right there,” describes Yannick.  

It was an intense sight that won’t be forgotten by Yannick anytime soon. “The smoke was emanating from the grapes. It wafted up into the air and filled the entire space. The smell stayed on my clothes, and the cellar felt like a cigar room,” he says.

Smoke taint renders grapes unsalvageable. For any winemaker, this is devastating. Depending on the extent of smoke exposure and the varietal of grape affected, there is virtually no way to be sure of the impact of smoke taint until the grapes are crushed, bottled, or consumed. By then, it’s too late. Thanks to the sample test, the smoke taint was picked up early. 

No Shale, Basalt, or Summit 2020 Vintage

As we hold ourselves to the high standard of producing world-class wine, the smoke taint meant that the quality of the available grapes simply did not meet our criteria. For this reason, the Seven Apart team decided not to release any 2020 Vintage wines from the Stags Ridge Vineyard this year. This includes our Shale, Basalt, and Summit Cabernet Sauvignon. 

“There are techniques such as microfiltration or reverse osmosis to potentially reduce the smokiness in the wine. The problem with that is that you’re likely to change the innate characteristics of the wine so drastically that it becomes a different wine altogether – a risk Andy and the team were not willing to take”, explains Yannick.

As much as no winemaker wants to see their fruit not live up to its purpose, the caliber of our wine is something we will never compromise on. 

Wildfires: The New Normal 

Seven Apart will be releasing only one wine for the 2020 vintage: Expedition. Traditionally, Expedition is a Cabernet Sauvignon blended from grapes harvested from both our Base Camp and Stags Ridge vineyards. As the fruit from Stags Ridge was rendered unusable, this means that only the fruit from Base Camp could be used – halving the quantity of wine produced. 

“We’re only able to produce around 750 cases of the Expedition vintage. That’s 50% less than what we’ve done in previous years”, confirms Yannick. “This is to ensure that only the finest grapes are used while minimizing the impact on the land itself that has already seen so much turbulence.”

The sad reality is that wildfires are no longer unprecedented phenomena in wine country. The effects of climate change mean that wildfires are predicted to become more frequent and even more intense. This is a change for which winemakers and Californians are already preparing. Some have begun to explore cutting-edge technology that combats smoke taint and prevents smoke compounds from ever reaching the grapes. Innovative techniques include covering grape clusters with activated carbon hoods to insulate them from smoke exposure. Early studies have shown a 97% efficacy in this method, leaving winemakers increasingly hopeful. But these preventative measures will take time to be widely adopted, making them costly and unrealistic for most wineries at the moment. In truth, winemakers will need to make active changes in the vineyards – be that growing more drought-resistant varieties or moving their vineyards to the valley floor where fires are less of a threat. 

Despite the changing weather conditions, all is not lost. Wine has survived through millennia thanks to the resilience of winemakers and the grapes themselves. Innovation is something we champion at Seven Apart, and that is not going to change. Of course, our story is not unique. Many fellow neighboring wineries in Napa Valley and further afield will not be able to release a 2020 vintage at all and are navigating the same difficult decisions and consequences. For this reason, we encourage you to support your favorite wineries by purchasing their available wines, delving into the archives, or signing up for the allocation list. 

At Seven Apart, we are grateful to be releasing our limited-release 2020 Expedition in late September this year. 2020 will undoubtedly be a vintage that will go down in our history books and one that proves there is always a silver lining to every cloud – even if that cloud is a little hazy.