Fires in California: What You Can Expect

Unless you've been living in a cave, by now you know that there are several fires raging across northern California and the Pacific Northwest. These are very serious, large fires, encompassing huge swaths of land and challenging firefighters by the thousands. The loss of both natural resources and property has already been very significant. Lives have been altered in irreversible ways and the true tally will not be computed for many weeks or months to come.

This is not the first time natural catastrophes have ravaged our primary domestic growing regions.  In most recent memory, the earthquake that rattled Napa Valley last year comes to mind. There was also the widespread fires that impacted much of Mendocino County several years ago. And there are other events going further back for those wanting to take a grim walk down memory lane.

But as resilient people do, many in the wine industry are looking ahead. For some, harvest is already upon them, plans accelerated by the fires, no doubt.

What does this mean for the wine consumer? A few thoughts on short, mid, and long-term impact:

In the near term you can expect a very interesting mix of messaging coming from winegrowing and winemaking associations. On the one hand will be a reassuring message that all is well, grapes have been salvaged, and 2015 promises to be, yet again, the vintage of the decade. Perhaps that's a little overboard, but the public relations machine is already well past ignition, attempting to reassure the consuming public that they should not alter their allegiances (buying habits) due to the fires. At the same time, petitions are already in the works for  assistance for those personally impacted by the disaster. This is both understandable and necessary, if at odds with the prior reassurance.  How can the fires be so bad that households smack in the middle of wine country have been decimated without extraordinary impact to the grapes in the area?  This is either conveniently optimistic or deliberately ignorant. Here's why:

When temperatures reach a raging flame point in natural settings, combustion of any flammable substance is often explosive. Depending on what the material is, different types of residue will be vaporized and set a loft into the winds. If we think about burning yard waste - dried grass, for example - we know that it can smoke a lot and smell for a short bit. But when we consider that much of the vegetation surrounding wine country is either conifer, succulent, or deciduous, these trees or shrubs tend to have very oily sap. Different varieties of pine, eucalyptus, and other heavy aromatic brush, when burnt, will emit smoke heavy with these oils and tar. Much in the same way as a crude oil spill coats rocks, beaches, and wildlife, there is no escaping this insidious and cloaking smoke. Anything even remotely in the path of the prevailing winds will be tainted.  Such was the fate of Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley in 2008: more Cohiba than cool climate.

In the midterm, most particularly at the end of this year and into next year as recaps of this vintage echo, a refined downplay evolution of the message starting to go out now will emerge: 2015 is a unique vintage that offers unprecedented character.  Spin city.

Finally, the long term will remain less certain until the net impact to wines becomes pale in the light of day.  At that point - if there is any damage to juice at all - winemakers will be forced to make harsh, if creative, decisions. Will they dare put smoke-laden juice into expensive barrels at the risk of long-term damage? Will they invest the operational resources to even make wine if it is undeniably flawed? Conversely, will they make lemonade out of lemons by seizing the opportunity to branch out and issue one-time-only bottlings of wines that go well with heavily grilled poultry, Pittsburgh steaks, and maduro cigars?

At the end of the day, every savvy consumer should be comforted by the knowledge that there are dozens of other winegrowing regions around the world that, in 2015, experienced little more than a hiccup. Which is consolation indeed in light of what families are suffering through right now across the west and northwest. Let's all keep them in our thoughts as we raise a glass for their safe passage. And if you're feeling charitable, perhaps you'll consider making a donation to the Red Cross, which is participating in the relief effort.