Many feared Napa’s 2020 smoked wine crop would be a failure. A recent auction revealed otherwise.

Many Napa Valley winemakers would likely name 2020 the worst year of their careers — and not because of the pandemic. Plagued by two major fires in a row, a significant portion of the grape harvest, especially for red wines, was destroyed by smoke from the wildfires before it could be harvested. Some Napa wineries produced no wine that year.

But a recent trade event, Napa Valley’s first annual, proved the 2020 vintage in Napa wasn’t a total wash. A surprising start to 2020 red wines has generated optimism within the local industry about the prospect of making wine during future fire seasons. Once these wines are made public, consumer confidence could be restored in what has been widely publicized as a disastrous Napa vintage.

Although unknown to the general public, Premiere is a long-standing tradition for the Napa wine industry. The week-long event, which took place last week, always culminates in an auction in which wine buyers from restaurants and retailers across the country bid on small, unique edition wines. limited specially designed for Premiere. Money raised from the auction helps fund Napa Valley Vintners programs.

Historically, the wines poured at the event are almost all Cabernet Sauvignon from the vintage that took place two years prior. This year should have been the time for the 2020 vintage to be in the spotlight, but very few wineries had 2020 wine to show. According to the 2020 Grape Crush report, growers in Napa County crushed just under 100,000 tons of grapes, down from 160,000 in 2019.

Of the 109 wine lots submitted by Napa wineries, only 35 were from the 2020 vintage. This gave these wineries a rare advantage in Napa’s cabernet-driven monoculture, a chance to stand out in a pool much smaller. The trade greeted these 2020 wines with a combination of curiosity and skepticism – would they actually be good or were they tainted with smoke? “Are people looking for something that doesn’t exist? I think to some extent you’re going to find some of that,” said Yohanna Burmeister, national sales manager for Pride Mountain Vineyards, which sits on the ridge of the Mayacamas Mountains and brought a 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon to Premiere.

But at the end of Premiere last week, the general consensus of wine industry attendees was that the 2020 wines were showing up well and had no noticeable traces of smoke smell. At the auction, Silver Oak Cellars’ 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon landed the second-highest bid: $70,200 for 240 bottles of wine. Overall, the 2020 vintage reds sold for an average price of $234 a bottle, above the overall average for recent Premiere events. Last year it was $227. Several 2020 wines cost more than $500 a bottle, including offerings from Spottswoode Estate, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Alpha Omega.

“With the difficulties of the 2020 vintage, I was very surprised by the quality they show here,” said Robert Ord, director of winery relations and buyer for Underground Cellar, an e-commerce wine company based in the Bay. Region. “To put it insensitively, Napa took a beating in 2020, but the juice that’s here is really pretty fantastic.” At the auction, Underground Cellar bid on eight 2020 lots, winning four of them.

Without as many Cabernets, however, there was also an unexpected abundance of red wines from 2019, 2020 and 2021. (This kind of widespread divergence of vintages has rarely been seen before at Premiere.) Among the offerings were Merlot, Malbec and a rare Nebbiolo. from iconic Pritchard Hill producer David Arthur Vineyards. White wines were also on display. Spanish company Artesa Winery brought an Albarino, historic Trefethen Vineyards a Riesling.

The impact of smoke on wine grapes depends on a variety of factors, including proximity to the smoke, current weather conditions, grape variety, and location of the grapes during the growing season. In the case of the 2020 red wines presented at Premiere, they almost all had one thing in common: the fruit was picked before the Glass Fire at the end of September of that year. The LNU Lightning Complex fire, which occurred a few weeks earlier, does not appear to have had as devastating an effect on Napa Valley grapes as the last fire.

Inglenook associate winemaker Chris Phelps pays the winery’s 2020 batch to Premiere Napa Valley.

Jess Lander

At Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook in Rutherford, associate winemaker Chris Phelps said his team blind tasted about 100 batches of 2020 fruit to determine what was good enough to make wine from. In the end, all batches that passed their test were selected before the Glass Fire.

Burmeister noted that Pride had a similar result. “What came before the glass fire is delicious,” she said. “What happened after the Glass Fire was destroyed.”

There’s still a lot the industry doesn’t understand about the smell of smoke, but the reception of the 2020 wines at Premiere may give hope that future fire seasons – which occur with more frequency higher than ever – will not necessarily be catastrophic for the quality of the wine. .

“The smoke will probably become one of the aspects of the vintage, just like the higher yields or the frost or one of the variables that you have in nature,” said Jean Hoeflinger, consultant winemaker for several brands, including AXR de Napa Valley and Pope Valley Winery. . “I think we are getting more and more used to making wine in these conditions. In 2020, I decided to stop making wines. Honestly, in hindsight, that was probably a mistake. I think I could have taken a little more risk.

Phelps thinks other winemakers, like Hoeflinger, might now question their decision to throw away their 2020 fruit. The immediate consensus that all 2020 wines were irreparably tainted with my smoke may have been a premature conclusion. The next time there’s a major smoke event, others will at least try to make wine and see how it goes, Phelps said. “I think a few people are kicking themselves, like, maybe they should have tried seriously,” he said.

Premiere wines could also help change the narrative of Napa’s limited releases in 2020. “There was a lot of press and negativity around 2020,” said Siobhan Irons, buyer at Harrods in London. The luxury department store won Spottswoode’s batch of 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon, which had the highest-selling bottle price at auction: $633.

Consumers might be less willing to spend their money on 2020 wines if they think they taste smoky, but many producers, especially those in the fine wine realm, are unlikely to release such a wine . “If you trust the producer and the quality he sticks to,” Irons said, “then you know he would have either made a good wine in 2020 or he wouldn’t have one at all.”

Alternatively, Burmeister suggests buying from trusted retailers and not necessarily from a major grocery chain. “It’s a really good reason to shop at local wineries,” she said, “the little bottle shops that taste absolutely everything that comes through their door.”

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jesslander

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