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ADVERTISING: Advertorial — GEORGE BALLING: About that 2020 Wine Grape Harvest?

| August 26, 2020 1:00 AM

It was just two short weeks ago that we wrote about the 2020 harvest and how the vintage looked heading into the most crucial time in the growing year. Our outlook at the time was quite sanguine, we said then that “it looks to be a great vintage barring any big temperature swings to either extreme, or the appearance of early fall rains”. As only 2020 could do, here we are a short two weeks later and my how things have changed. While the Northwest is continuing on its same trajectory with a late albeit very good year, the situation across California especially Northern California has become quite dire.

Just about a week ago, Northern California experienced a series of thunder storms the likes of which are rarely seen in the coastal regions there. The storms were so severe and so spectacular that a picture of lightning over the San Francisco Bay Bridge made it into the news section of the Coeur d’Alene Press. Wildfires started by the thousands of lightning strikes are now burning across the state from south to north, encompassing most of the wine grape producing regions.

The potential devastation to the wine grape crop is enormous. Veraison, when the grapes turn from green to purple, is already complete. Once the grapes complete this crucial phase on their way to being ripe, their skins become porous and can absorb the smoke, causing smoke taint. These fires also have the potential to be even more devastating than the big wine country fires of 2017, as harvest has barely begun. In Sonoma and Napa Counties, about all that is being picked right now is some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that are used in sparkling wine production. Grapes for all sparkling wines, including Champagne, are generally harvested earlier, at lower sugar and higher acid levels, due to the specifics of “bubbly” production. By contrast, when the fires started in 2017 harvest was about 90% complete.

One of the many challenges for Northern California wine country and the wildfires that virtually surround it now is a lack of fire fighting help. Since fires had already started across the south, most of the resources have been directed there, leaving Northern California woefully short staffed to deal with the fires there. While writing this on Saturday morning, most of the fires there are not contained at all and while many of the fires are small, there are several that are among the largest in history.

Complicating the situation for many grape growers in the area is that the further north you went, many of these storms came with some substantial rainfall. Heading into harvest, growers and winemakers alike are consistent in their opinion that moisture is bad for the grapes.

The one hope is that most of the fires are not right on top of the vineyards the way they were in 2017. The proximity of fires to vineyards in that year gave many of the vines little chance of shelter from the thick, dense smoke. Distance from the fire can help a lot when it comes to smoke taint, so hopefully this will provide some mitigation from the worst effects of the smoke.

In talking to winemakers over the last few days the sentiment was nearly universal — that “there is a lot of smoke” in both Napa and Sonoma Counties right now as they are virtually encircled with fires. While we have not heard any news yet of sea breezes coming in off the Pacific to not only clear the air some, but also knock down the extraordinary temperatures, these patterns can and frequently do change quickly. We hope for the best.

Once the grapes have gotten smoke taint, there is nothing that can be done to rid the grapes, and therefore the wine, of it. With all that our friends in wine country have endured this virus plagued year — from reduced tourism to shuttered tasting rooms and restaurants — we can only hope that they all will get some relief from the heat, smoke and fires in time to salvage the crop. Their livelihoods hang in the balance and they have our prayers. We will provide updates as we have them.

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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.