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How Will Fires Affect the Wine Business?

October 2017
by Andrew Adams

San Rafael, Calif.—Early estimates about the economic impact of the Northern California wildfires predict the total will extend into the billions of dollars. It’s difficult, however, to predict just how these fires will affect the 2017 vintage—much less the overall industry.

Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine Brokerage in Novato, Calif., told Wines & Vines it appears the loss of homes and displacement of people in general could have more of an impact on the industry than any damage specific to wineries or vineyards.

Glenn Proctor, broker and partner with Ciatti Global Wine & Grape Brokers based in San Rafael, said grape picking, deliveries and fermentation management were all disrupted because of the fires and because wineries lost power and employees couldn’t get to work.

Speaking to Wines & Vines on Oct. 17, Jeff Bitter, vice president of operations for the Allied Grape Growers, said the biggest concern for growers at the moment is smoke contamination (see page 17). He said he’s heard that some wineries are rejecting any grapes that have been exposed to smoke, while others are willing to accept everything and deal with possible smoke issues later by trying to treat must or just sell the wine on the bulk market.

Even if the grapes don’t test positive for compounds that indicate smoke taint, some wineries are still rejecting grapes because they fear off-flavors that might develop much later, when the wine is in the bottle.

Of particular concern is the Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon harvest, which was far from complete prior to the fires. On Oct. 18, the Napa Valley Vintners released a statement about the fires “based on reports from some of the region’s largest wineries” saying 90% of the county’s grapes by volume were picked before the fires started.

Much of Napa Valley’s Cabernet crop is owned by wineries, and Bitter said it’s going to be interesting to see how those companies deal with any grapes affected by smoke.

The result could be much more Napa Valley wines hitting the bulk market because the grapes were declassified by a winery or rejected by a winery and vinified by the grower. The grapes also could have been picked prior to the fires and then sold at a premium price on the open market. He said there could be a “pretty big chasm” between the high and low prices for bulk Napa Cab based on the presence or potential of smoke contamination.

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