Conversation with Bruce Prothro on the Future Impact of the Fires on Wine Country

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I recently got in touch with Bruce Prothro of Prothro Family Wines to see if he could give me an assessment of how this year’s harvest was affected by the fires. I also wanted to get his insight into what the situation in wine country will be going forward for the next few years.

Wines of Note (WON) – Can you tell me a little more about smoke taint? Can you explain why there aren’t any good solutions for the problem?

Bruce – Basically, smoke gets on the skins of grapes and the phenols compounds present in the smoke are released during crush and fermentation and, I believe, bind with the sugars. You can try limited skin contact, but that’s an issue with red wines, and will not eliminate the issue altogether. You can try ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis but the phenols are still present and will come back. You can try to mask the taint, or smokiness, with oak but then you get an oaky, smokey wine. Blending with non-smoke taint wines may be the best option since it will dilute the influence of smoke taint, but the taint will still be present. Overall, for 2017, it is important to know when the grapes were harvested to know if the wine you are buying may or may not exhibit smoke taint.

Fortunately, about 80 percent of the grapes (in the fire affected areas) were harvested at the time the fires really started to rage. So, there should only be about 20 percent affected, but that 20 percent is mainly cabernet and Bordeaux varietals and some zinfandel.

We were able to harvest our grapes before the fires and they were all crushed and in “tank” by Monday, October 9th. By a matter of luck, ripening at the right time, and vineyard management, we avoided any potential for smoke taint. The quality and flavor of the grapes were wonderful at harvest and early samples show exceptional flavor profiles and balance.

If picked before October 9th, I would say 2017 was a really, really good harvest. Anything after October 9th will have to be evaluated in time to see the influence of smoke taint.

WON – In your estimate, how many vineyards will need to be replanted?

Bruce – That is so hard to know at this point and time. Some vineyards, especially on the Sonoma side, were completely lost and others were just partially affected. We are still waiting to hear about the ones we use that were affected by the Atlas Fire – Broken Rock and Stagecoach. As I understand it, some vineyards may be scorched, some may have had the fires affect only a small portion, and others had the fires burn completely through the vineyards. As more and more growers assess the damage and survey the affects, we’ll know more…but it may be several weeks before we get anything conclusive.

WON – If the vineyard is not a total loss does the fire act as a kind of natural pruning process? How long before these vines are producing again?

Bruce – Vineyards are natural fire breaks. Trees and shrubs and undergrowth may surround the vineyards, but vineyards are typically well groomed with carefully managed cover crops. There is not a lot there for the fire to work with so it may scorch the perimeter, burn around the vineyard, or burn through quickly. It has been reported that some biodynamic and organic vineyards suffered damage and that could be due to how the cover crop is managed and what’s planted. If there is more fuel for the fire, then the vineyard may get hit harder.

In the vineyard, if the root stock is not affected, then there is a chance the vineyard can recover. It can be grafted if there is damage to the canopy. It can also be pruned and to see if it recovers in the Spring with bud break.

If sections of the vineyard were affected, then those sections may have to be replanted, which does not affect the entire vineyard production.

WON – What do you think will be the total recovery time before everything is back to the way it was before the fires?

Bruce – Wow! That is so hard to say. It can take more than a decade for fire damage to be erased in the landscape of a region. Vineyards can be replanted in a few years and be back to producing in about 5 to 7 years. Buildings and wineries can be rebuilt, but it will take years given permitting processes and insurance settlements. What I fear is that some may not be rebuilt and some vineyards may not be replanted. That would be a shame. I also fear for old vine Zinfandel since it is so different than other varietals that are replanted on a fairly consistent cycle. Old vine zinfandel is unique and it would be significant to lose those historic vineyards.

It will be interesting to see what county supervisors and building commission do in response to these fires. The mix in wooded areas may change and rebuilding may be affected. That will be the interesting aspect of this recovery – to see what they allow and won’t allow.

Lastly, there will be some loss of supply for 2018 and beyond until vineyards are replanted. Grape costs are already high, especially cabernet, so it may push up the cost of grapes and wine for the next several years. You may also see an increase in bulk wine costs for 2017 as wineries scramble to get extra wine to meet demands due to their loss of production. Some wineries affected by the fires may have to use custom crush facilities as a stop gap. That could also increase cost.

However, there were a lot of vineyards and wineries that were not affected. For them, it is business as usual. Like us. We were not affected and given that our production is small, it does not make up for what has been lost, but it does give the consumer and wine lover a chance to try something new and explore some new brands.

Thank you again for sparing some time for me Bruce. I know it’s been a crazy couple of weeks for you.

It sounds like we should all be stocking up on our favorite Napa/Sonoma wines as price increases will be coming. For anyone wanting to try Prothro Family Wines now is a good time to order. They are donating 5% of sales on all new orders to help with Napa/Sonoma fire relief. So you can try some new amazing wines and feel good that you’re helping to rebuild wine country.

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If anyone still wants to contribute directly to fire relief efforts, Bruce and Ronda suggest the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

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