Vol 3 No 13…an American tragedy…

(It has been over a month since the last post…mea culpa…partly this was due to the hurricanes and the destruction they brought that put TB in a funk. Will try to be more prompt and get back to the ‘every other week’ pace. TB)

TB doesn’t want to overemphasize the disaster in Napa and Sonoma counties, but it is a big deal, perhaps second only to Houston in damage, much of which cannot be measured.

First, having lived in the Bay Area for 29 years before moving to Minnesota seven years ago, I have visited scores of wineries and gotten to know many in the wine industry. My book project on the passion these people have for what they do, brings to light their hard work…and let’s not romanticize it: it’s farming (don’t take TB’s word for it, Joe Heitz was the one who said it to TB thirty years ago)!

Many of them came from the Midwest and were farmers, others, as my friend Lane Tanner puts it: “were bitten by the bug and when that happens you’re done.”

As much damage was done to the vines, wineries, and their homes, the growth in population, fueled by both the tourist industry where many are employed, and a place where retirees see an Eden to spend their twilight years was a key factor in the loss of homes and lives, especially in Sonoma County in and around Santa Rosa.

There is much confusion due to the massive size of these fires. For instance, they refer to the one with the huge perimeter that has destroyed much of Santa Rosa as the ‘Tubbs Fire”…huh? Aren’t they talking about the wrong fire? Actually, no. The Tubbs fire stretches from Tubbs Lane just to the north of Calistoga, over the Napa range along the Petrified Forest Highway and then down to Santa Rosa. That fire is bigger in area than all other fires in the state, which includes the Orange County fire combined!

I am grateful that none of the properties owned by friends were affected, but then, it isn’t over yet. Nearly 30 are known dead, and over 60 still missing (owing to the destruction of landmark hotels in Santa Rosa and since those were tourists, likely most, if not all scattered but there are still those who were trapped in their homes.

The last fire in the Santa Rosa area was in 1964, and note that there were no fatalities…zero! So you can see the impact of growth. Of course the high winds, with gusts to 70 mph were a major cause of dissemination. Firefighters say that embers were blown ahead of the fire for one to three miles…making it impossible to control or predict where it would strike.

Consider California coming off a 500 year drought! Then the rains of early this year caused the valleys and hillsides (I drove from Orange County to Seattle in mid-February), to be the most beautiful I have ever seen them…and now this.

While it was green and beautiful, it came at the expense of mudslides, especially in the Santa Cruz area where you had to zigzag on surface streets to get from US 101 to Santa Cruz since the main (and only) highway connecting the two was inundated in a mudslide that took more than a month to recover from. Also, there are some great vineyards and wineries stretching from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. North of there, in the flat between the coastal range and the Carrizo plain to the east, the vineyards are flat and looked like a swamp. While this concerned me, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon noted that before budbreak it isn’t problematic. Still, I can’t help but think the wines from the area north of Paso to Greenfield, which is solid vineyards, would not be producing very good wine. For 2017,wines you are going to have to be very careful, and might want to pay attention to ratings before you buy (can’t believe I just wrote that!). Besides the rains, many areas suffered early frosts, then came the record-breaking heat, most notably in Napa Valley.

Twelve days above 100 degrees with no cooling at night, as Napa Valley traps in the heat, normally a good thing, while to the west and atop Howell Mountain there was some relief. Look for wines from there this vintage. Smoke taint is certainly a risk but over 90% of the grapes had been picked…the holdouts being some of the big cabs and zins, so you will have to be careful with these. In addition, to the record number of days, the highest temperature recorded was 115 degrees! Not good for wine…especially whites, pinot noir and merlot which are cooler climate grapes.

The combination of rain making the valley lush, then frosts, then the searing heat which dried out all that new greenery as well as the accumulated dead brush from the drought, was a prescription for disaster.

Here is another thing I bet you didn’t think of: with a lot of grapes in fermentation, they need to be tended to daily. Judd Finkelstein, whose father was a widely respected winemaker at Whitehall Lane, and owner of Judd’s Hill Winery, just off the Silverado Trail to the west of the Atlas Peak burn, had no damage but his winemaker had to be escorted in to tend to the fermenting wine, called my attention to this in an email to friends of the winery. How much wine that is in inaccessible areas will be lost? A pity.

While California took the brunt of it, Oregon and Washington were also impacted with fires. Note that all these fires are occurring at a time that fire crews are usually disbanding. This was particularly true in Washington where the largest burn was caused by a teenager setting off fireworks in the forest! It is likely that some of the California fires were due to human negligence, however the high winds toppled trees causing power lines to collapse setting off several fires.

Hopefully, while you are sipping your wine you will think of the wine people and also of those who lived nearby and are now homeless.

Lastly, a political statement, but one that shouldn’t be: there can be no doubt about climate change. First, we had 95% or more of the scientific community signing off on it, with most (all?) of the dissenters being shills for the energy industry and others. This is not from me but a friend with the National Academy of Sciences and of Engineering. Nothing new here…he told me this a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Trump and Co., including Secretary of State Tillerson (who, by the way was made a member of the National Academy of Engineering about five years ago for his work on fossil fuels), who while CEO of EXXON denounced climate change along with the rest of his company, despite funding many scientific studies which proved just the opposite. When challenged on this the company released all internal communications (what the hell were they thinking?), and the proof was shown that while they were denouncing it, the very studies they funded showed it to be real.

TB doesn’t know whether you believe in climate change, but if you don’t, and with the leadership (sic) of Trump, we do nothing, what will you tell your grandchildren when they bear the consequences of our inaction? Good luck on that one! I would like to add the climate change in Europe where Burgundy and Bordeaux had a huge disaster of a harvest. One winemaker in St. Estephe has predicted that in ten years there will be no more merlot!

A friend told me he was going to the wine country next week! I said, “still?” He said he was and going to both Napa and Sonoma. I tried to talk him out of it, and may have, saying they don’t need tourists there now. I added that IF he is still going he should focus on the Dry Creek and the Alexander Valley, both just out of Healdsburg and north of the fires, and further north the Anderson Valley, all of which produce some great wines.

Condolences to those who have lost their homes, or have friends or relatives that have had their lives torn apart by this catastrophe…also to the hurricane victims who continue to suffer.

Trader Bill

(c) traderbillonwine.com

 

 

 

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