If you’ve read the paper or – for locals, breathed – in the past 2 months, you are aware we are experiencing one of the most traumatic and stressful vintages in our memories. Our dry summers are one of the notable features that makes California a unique grape growing region; no rain, an arid climate May-ish through October-ish. In northern California, and especially out on the coast where we farm, we get a lot of rain – over 60 inches on average – every winter. On the coast we also have a lot of fog throughout the summer, too (hence, the fog-loving Redwoods). Our soils are saturated entering summer and, in northern California, our fire risk come October has historically been concerning but tolerable.
This has vaporized in the last 5 years as now we are occasionally experiencing drier winters, more severe and extended warm spells during the summer that dry out the land, and early and powerful late summer storms that knock down power lines or explode the skies with lightning. You Midwesterners understand lightning. Growing up in Ohio I used to love summer lightning storms. But, y’all receive a lot of humidity in the summer (that I don’t miss) and out here, we do not. Dry forests and grasslands and severe hot offshore weather with lightning and powerful offshore winds lead to extreme, disastrous fire conditions.
The fires are still raging in northern California. We picked our last block of fruit a few days ago. The fire never reached our actual vineyard but the fire ripped across the road you take to visit us on the coast. And though we luckily escaped the path of the fires – so far – it seems unlikely everyone has escaped the impact of smoke on their fruit. We really don’t know to what degree – or even if we have any – smoke flavors in our wine. We are way out on the coast and smelled smoke for 14 hours in the first round of fires and then lightly for a few days while Oregon burned. We smelled it again last week at the beginning of the Glass Fire. How much smoke and for what duration does it take to affect wine? We don’t know. Labs are backed up with samples for analysis from every winery on the West Coast. Opinions differ on what to track and what is perceptible. We don’t smell smoke on the fruit or in the fermentation tanks but who is to say it won’t peek its head out of the ground come spring?
So, this is yet another vintage where to make distinctive, superior wine, the winemaker and the winery matter. In our case, Vanessa is a very skilled and hard-working person who sweats every detail. She changed some of our winemaking practices to mitigate the potential presence of smoke taint (no new or even new-ish oak barrels, no whole cluster, etc…). But, even Vanessa does not know if those efforts will be successful. If we discover any smoke taint in our wines, we won’t make them under a Peay label, or perhaps, not at all. In the meantime, we make wine as best as we can with the knowledge we have and will wait and see.
I think in many facets of our lives today, we are all learning what we can and what we cannot control. Focusing on our world’s horrifying events can motivate us to try to affect future events but can leave us feeling helpless in the tide of current events. For those, we must adapt and take them in stride, if possible. We have been dealt a tricky hand in 2020. We will play it as best we can.*
In the meantime, we hope you and your family and friends are staying sane, sharing delicious bottles with those you in your pod, and guarding your health. Many good years are ahead and we wish you a smooth road.
*I will avoid the Bridge analogy as I may be one of the very few who still kind of play the card game.