Cover Stories

Santa Cruz Mountains Winemakers Grapple with Aftermath of Fire

Fire and pandemic combine to create strangest harvest in memory

While his winery was spared—a result he calls ‘miraculous’—much of Bradley Brown’s crop was scorched. PHOTO: BRADLEY BROWN

On Aug. 21, the headlines screamed warnings that the entire vintage of 2020 might be ruined by smoke from the wildfires set off by lightning strikes five days earlier.

Five wineries including Big Basin Vineyards, Beauregard Vineyards, Hallcrest Vineyards, and McHenry Vineyard in the San Lorenzo Valley, Bonny Doon and Woodside/Skyline growing regions were in or near evacuation zones due to the CZU Lightning Complex fires. Forced to evacuate, winemakers could only hope and pray that fire would spare their homes, vineyards, and winemaking facilities. Some prayers were answered. Others weren’t so lucky.

Ryan Beauregard, winemaker at Beauregard Vineyards, found himself in the thick of the raging CZU flames. “No cell service up here has really been a problem,” Beauregard recalled. “Not having access to phones made it tough. We got these crappy hand radios, a few of us. That helped some. I wasn’t leaving. I have a life of dedication to this mountain.”

Sending his family to safety, he slept outside in the smoke the first four nights, and “drove around looking for Cal Fire.” But the agency was overwhelmed. Beauregard joined up with many of his fellow Bonny Doon landowners to help.

“There were so many fires,” he says. “First couple of days felt like we were alone. Smart and fearless people with heavy equipment stayed. Multiple brigades; eight guys in my neighborhood.” Beauregard helped make a fire break around the winery. In the end, it worked. “It was a combined effort,” he says, proudly. Luck and grit prevailed.

“The good news is that our winery and our family homes are still standing,” says Beauregard. “Our vineyards have had minimal physical damage, though the crop is destroyed.” He is now working to harvest his prized, all-organic Bald Mountain Chardonnay. “But it’s still unknown in terms of quality. My goal is to make all 20 acres into one Santa Cruz Mountains non-vineyard-designate wine, and who knows—we may make it all into sparkling wine this year.”

Grapes from beyond the smoke’s reach also came to the rescue for Beauregard, who was able to purchase Pinot Noir grapes from Hirsch Vineyard on the Sonoma coast. “I also bought fruit to make the Lost Weekend wine from 130 year old vines in Antioch, plus Zayante and Regan vineyards,” he says. As for his Zinfandel and Cabernet? “It’s not looking good,” he admits.

The intense smoke that gripped the Santa Cruz Mountains for a full month after the fires began was only one of the challenges plaguing winemakers. There was an actual plague, Covid-19, that necessitated new protocols for harvesting, transporting, and fermenting the grapes. A stretch of extreme heat in mid-August also accelerated ripening and fried many grapes into raisin status. That same heat generated the lightning strikes that unleashed historic wildfires.

Smoke Taint

Vineyard consultant Prudy Foxx explains that “smoke taint” (guaiacol), which can afflict wine with the flavor profile of a wet ashtray, occurs when grapes exposed to smoke are fermented into wine. That transformation releases the unpleasant compounds that have permeated the fruit’s molecules. “Smoke taint is the term for an identifiable chemical compound,” Foxx says. “We know from other fires in the past that this could be a problem.”

After the wildfires broke out Aug. 19, “we collected samples on the 22nd and urged everyone to take samples. Tests are done on micro-fermentations using small quantities of fruit,” she says.

Given that Santa Cruz Mountains is “such a small, elite AVA [American Viticultural Area], with a reputation of high integrity,” no premium winemaker wants to put their label on tainted wine. “People who are heavily exposed to the wildfire smoke simply cannot harvest their Pinot Noir, which is a tender varietal,” she explains. “If it’s picked really cleanly, with no leaves, there’s still a good chance you can make a rosé,” which requires minimal skin contact.

Foxx predicts that Corralitos vineyards will get through all of this unscathed. The early samples at Lester Family Vineyards, which she personally manages, were “exciting.”

“In general, the Chardonnay escaped the worst of it,” she says. As far as the extreme heat, she explains that “the vineyards with trouble were younger, newly planted, or those that had smaller vines. Just about everybody with thinner-skinned fruit took a 10% hit. The heat affects volume, not quality.”

Up in Smoke

One of the oldest family-run estate wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, McHenry Vineyard, was one of the hardest hit. The winery and winemaker’s residential cabin were destroyed by the CZU fire.

“We have lost our 2018 and most of the 2019 vintages,” McHenry winemaker Brandon Blanchard tells me. “Our library of old wines and all of our winemaking equipment—gone.” Crews were able to save other structures, including winery founder Dean McHenry’s home. “But there’s lots of smoke damage to the remaining structures, trees are all torched,” says Blanchard. “The Pinot Noir grapes survived, but you can’t get analysis fast enough before you need to harvest. The 2020 crop is likely lost due to smoke damage. We still have to go through the process of having samples analyzed for crop insurance. We’ll end up tilling them under.”

Blanchard’s most pressing concern, in addition to working with five different insurance companies, is getting water to the vineyard.

“Both our wells burned,” he says. “Right now, I’m trying to buy grapes. Prudy Foxx is working to source some for us, and John Benedetti has offered to help us make wine at his Aromas facility. Ideally we’ll buy a small batch of grapes so that we can at least have a 2020 vintage. Losing a winery is heartbreaking.” A GoFundMe account has been set up to rebuild McHenry winery.

Vintage Outlook

Last month, Birichino’s Alex Krause got up at 3am “to pick the oldest Cinsault vineyard on the planet, and then on to our second pick of the day by 5:30am. We are sad we won’t make any red Cinsault from 2020, nor Carignane from Montague, but boy the Vin Gris will be good,” says Krause. “Fingers crossed.”

Krause is grateful to fire crews from Los Angeles who helped out, including one that had driven 3,000 miles from New Jersey.

Krause’s winemaking partner John Locke admits that it’s difficult to be certain about the amount of smoke contamination in the grapes. “It may be difficult to generalize the vintage at this point. There have obviously been a large number of very, very hot days, yet acid levels are higher than normal. Some people picked early to avoid the smoke and/or heat. Others waited it out. We chose a mix of paths and adjusted practices along the way,” says Locke. The Covid-19 pandemic, he says, “will alter the way we pick, the way we press, the way we ferment. There will be a lot of experimentation in finessing the harvest of 2020.”

As with other winemakers I asked, Locke acknowledges the closeness of the winemaking community. “There’s a tremendous amount of conversation going on—people are free with strategies and techniques.”

Birichino buys grapes already picked. “So we bring our bins and pull out the leaves. Important not to have leaves. They hold the smoke,” says Locke. “Picking a shitload of leaves.”

The crazy thing about the wine business, he notes, is that “we’re working on something that we won’t sell for 18 months. Next year’s crops might be completely fine. But they are a long way away.”

Locke says the worst-case scenario for local winemakers is “you buy grapes and you pay for winemaking facilities, and you end up with something you can’t sell. Many grapes originally intended for red wines are being pressed and diverted to pink wine production. The heat has been a bit of a menace, and significantly pummelled the old vine Zinfandel from Gilroy. However, the old vine Mourvedre which came in from Contra Costa before the fires looks wicked good.”

Getting in Line

Nicole Walsh, winemaker for her label Ser, as well as for Bonny Doon Vineyard, began harvesting Orange Muscat during one of the intense heat waves in mid-August. While the ripeness wasn’t what she wanted, she was glad she got her grapes in before the smoke arrived there. Worried about possible smoke taint, she decided against grapes from one of her favorite blocks, “the old vine Cinsault from Bechtold vineyard in Lodi. I was almost going to take a gamble, but that particular week we were dealing with the CZU fire threatening Santa Cruz, especially the winery on the Westside. I was not certain I would even be able to bring the fruit or juice to the winery, friends being evacuated, virtual school with my kids, my husband—a firefighter in Palo Alto—being pulled in many directions and not able to come home.”

Walsh explains that trying to send samples for analysis meant getting in line with every other winemaker trying to check for smoke taint levels in their grapes.

“Some winemakers were even sending samples to Australia and Europe for faster turnaround,” she says.

As far as the heat waves, she says, “the fruit in many areas seemed to be erratically jumping into chemical ripeness overnight. Because of Covid-19 protocols, one of the main custom crush facilities I work with was demanding a week’s notice before scheduling any trucks.” Usually, winemakers can count on a 24-hour window for picking.

Walsh calls this year’s crop, “an extremely challenging vintage on so many levels.”

Winemaker Bradley Brown lost the house that he lived in next to his Big Basin Vineyards estate in the fire. PHOTO: BRADLEY BROWN

A Complicated Aftermath

The custom-crafted house that winemaker Bradley Brown lived in, next to his Big Basin Vineyards estate, burned to the ground.

“Our winery has been miraculously spared, but the house is tragically gone and the vineyard has been badly scorched,” says Brown. The events leading up to his Aug. 18 evacuation came fast and hard. “Winds started whipping up late in the day, Pescadero was already ablaze. Helicopters flew overhead and told us over bullhorns to evacuate, and evacuate immediately. That was Tuesday night. Then it hit Eagle Rock, and then down to Bonny Doon and toward Boulder Creek. We tried to get back up to save things, but couldn’t.”

Brown had just finished bottling some 2019 vintages on the same day that he was evacuated.

“I see it as a setback,” he says, “but it’s not fatal.”

Brown has hired a public adjuster to deal with all his insurance issues. “We’ve been scrambling. It’s just all too complicated,” he says. “The structures and equipment are covered, but the fruit isn’t, the vines aren’t.”

His estate Pinot Noir is a total loss. “Two acres of campfire flavor,” he quips. “As for the Grenache and Syrah that power his celebrated Rhône-style wines, “we don’t know if it is salvageable as a rosé or not. Analysis will find out. Same with estate Roussanne and Viognier. Our other vineyards appear like they might dodge the smoke taint bullet, but until we ferment to wine, we can’t be sure. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to catch up—equipment is covered with sticky soot. Still, we’re super grateful that the winery survived. So many people reached out and offered their facilities to us. This is an amazing community.”

Testing Clean

On the bright side, winemaker Richard Alfaro assures me “there’s no doom and gloom here” at Alfaro Family Vineyards. Micro-fermentations from Corralitos and Trout Gulch have smelled beautiful. The first batches back from the lab have tested clean for smoke taint, as did our neighbor’s.” Alfaro did lose some fruit due to seven days of 100-plus degree weather.

“We dropped [left in the fields] all the sunburned or raisined fruit,” he says. “The fruit that was picked is exceptional.”

Given his large acreage of vines, Alfaro’s grapes will find their way into neighboring wines. “We have picked for ourselves and for Marty Mathis, Big Basin, Ceritas Arnot, Roberts, Jamie Kutch and Fernwood. Crazy year. We are making the best of it. We are fortunate to be far from the fires. The devastation of properties and grapes of my friends in the mountains is so sad.”

California, along with Oregon and Washington produces about 90% of all U.S. wine. “The true impact on the $70 billion industry will not be known for months,” noted a Reuters report last month.

Birichino’s John Locke sums it up this way: “It is a crazy vintage all the way around, but what is undeniable is that there will be a lot of pink wine from many unexpected sources.”

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you an earthling? Prove it with logic: *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

To Top