To say that the 2017 will be memorable is a complete understatement. It was already our first real harvest for SECRET DOOR WINERY in 2017 and so would always be remembered as such. The weekend of Labor Day the temperatures in and around the San Francisco Bay area broke records with scorchingly hot weather – pretty memorable. Then the Northern California wildfire apocalypse with thousands of homes and structures destroyed and tragic deaths. It’s going to be awhile before we have a more memorable harvest in Napa Valley.
The question I am asked the most is – “Did the wildfires ruin the 2017 harvest?” No. The fires did not ruin the 2017 harvest in the Napa Valley. The fires did pose some interesting challenges and certainly there are wines that were affected by the fire and also by the prolonged smoke. The vast majority of the grapes were already harvested before the fires broke out.
The challenges for 2017 break down into these overall categories
- Fire damage to vineyards
- Smoke damage to grapes in the vineyard or wine in progress
- Logistical issues with wineries due to mandatory evacuations and/or power outages
While there was fire damage to vineyards in the Napa Valley these were isolated incidents for the most part. Yes, some wineries will have less wine in 2017 because of this but the overall impact of fire directly in the vineyard was very small. The reason that there was not more direct fire damage is first, many of these vineyards had already been harvested also the fires were mainly in the rugged parts of the mountains to the east and west of the valley proper. Hillside vineyard sites were at risk but no vineyards on the valley floor were fire damaged. Even hillside sites if the vineyards were fully plowed with the riparian areas pushed back from the edge of the vines fared well. It’s hard to burn a vineyard that does not have vegetation growing in the rows. Vineyard sites that used a “no till” regime and had the fires pass through their area did not do as well. The grasses and other plants growing down the rows were very dry and a perfect starter to scorch the vines and the grape clusters. A few vineyards were a total loss but these were few indeed.
Smoke damage to grapes or wines in progress will become more apparent as the wines produced from grapes picked during or after the fires have more time in barrel. There is no doubt that there will be some issues with smoke “taint” from the smoke but I have had wines made from grapes prior to the fires as well as those made from grapes following the fires and in both cases did not see any smoke issues. We have heard that there are some out there – we just haven’t seen it. Wines in progress could potentially have picked up a smoky character as well depending on the location and whether the fermentation/storage was fully insulated from the smoke in the Napa Valley. This is the least likely issue since fermenting wines were releasing CO2 gas that would have prevented smoke from getting to them. Wines that had finished fermenting would have been closed up or in barrel and so to would have had little contact or opportunity to pickup smoky characters. I’ve not heard of any problems like this.
Logistical issues with wineries – specifically not being able to get to wineries to tend the wines in process was potentially a big problem. There were plenty of wines still undergoing fermentation that needed regular punch-downs or pump-overs and for a few days a number of wineries were offline including the Carter Cellars/Envy Winery where we make SECRET DOOR wines. Intrepid winemaking teams typically found a way to get to the wineries (even if they weren’t supposed to) and tend the fermentations. There were some wines that suffered I am sure but the team at Carter/Envy made a heroic effort and everything came through in good shape. I am guessing that most other wineries found a way as well.
Specific to SECRET DOOR – we picked the block A1B at Hirondelle Vineyard on September 12, 2017. The grapes were in great shape arriving at the winery with about 24.5° Brix and perfect acid/pH balances. The grapes were destemmed and placed into a stainless steel fermenter. The primary fermentation went very smoothly with 2-3 pump-overs per day.
We picked the block 38 at Sage Ridge Vineyard on September 14, 2017. There were no issues with the grapes regarding rot following a very dry summer. The sugar level was 23.9° with fully mature and ripe flavors. A similar regime to the Hirondelle Vineyard with regular pump-overs brought this wine to fermentation completion at about the same time.
Both the Hirondelle and the Sage Ridge Vineyards fermentations were complete and they were pressed on September 30, 2017. We pressed each lot separately into a stainless steel holding tank and then took the new wine down to barrel that same day. For 2017 we choose to use 100% new French Oak barrels and used one, once used barrel that was later broken down for topping wine. Malo-Lactic proceeded on its own without adding ML culture and the new wines were now stable.
As I mentioned at the beginning – the 2017 vintage is going to be long remembered for a number of reasons. The wines we made in 2017 are already showing beautiful character and the potentially to be very long-lived wines. I have a feeling that these two Cabernet Sauvignon wines will outlive most of us working on them. They have all the components in place and if properly stored have 30+ years ahead of them although I will be drinking my bottles somewhat sooner than that.