Wine harvest optimistic — 2021 vintages in barrel while some grapes take hit

Andrew Vonderschmitt
Mountain Democrat
Winemaker and owner of Madroña Winery Paul Bush checks on a 2021 vintage after some time in the barrel. Local winemakers say that while some of El Dorado County's harvest this year was effected by smoke from the Caldor Fire, most was not.
Andrew Vonderschmitt/Mountain Democrat

With the Caldor Fire fully contained El Dorado County residents and businesses are returning to normal, at least as normal as can be expected. The wine industry is no exception.

It is no secret that wine is big business in this county with more than 70 wineries making the best use of the unique terroir, sun exposure and weather conditions. When the call to evacuate came for many county wine grape growers the worst was imagined. What if crops are lost? What if smoke damage is too great? What if entire wineries succumb to flames?

And the fire came smack in the middle of some wineries’ harvest seasons.

Other than some minor cases of smoke effects, most of the county’s grapes seem to have been saved from the worst.

Miraflores Winery east of the community of Pleasant Valley is back to normal operations and getting cleanup under way on the property, which was right on the fire line. “Though the amount of damage to our estate vineyards was small (we lost just a few rows), approximately 70% of our forested acreage was burned, including two small outbuildings,” Miraflores staff reported in an email update to wine club members.

Lava Cap Winery in Camino was not near the fire but did experience a thick layer of smoke that seemed to lie on the vineyard some days, according to Nolan Jones, marketing and outreach manager at Lava Cap Winery.

They had many grapes already in production when the smoke started to affect the area. Management closed the tasting room and focused on testing the various grapes for any smoke effects that might be present.

“Our whites were totally fine; most of our reds were fine,” said Jones. “All of them were fine except the cabernet and the cab franc.” He added that perhaps they were more susceptible due to the time of their ripening coinciding with smoke coming through the region.

“I think the Bordeaux grapes are a little later … they were a little closer to veraison,” he said.

Veraison is when a grape is beginning to ripen, build up sugars and start changing colors. The metabolic shift goes from accumulating acids to accumulating sugars.

“It appears that after veraison the grapes are more susceptible to smoke. There are certain points along that ripening curve that they are particularly susceptible,” Jones explained.

At Madroña Vineyards, also in Camino, owner and winemaker Paul Bush kept the public updated through his newsletter as the harvest progressed, noting any effects the smoke might have caused.

In one update he addresses the question on many people’s minds: “Why can’t you just make a smoky wine?”

According to Bush, those smoke effects that might lead to smoky characteristics, which many wine lovers might actually enjoy, would more than likely be bound to unfermented sugars present in all wines. Those elements could “unbind” over time, making a wine radically different from what was bottled originally. This could lead to a wine with extremely varying flavor profiles from bottle to bottle.

“One may taste fine, the next like a wet campfire and the third like licking an ashtray,” Bush said.

Madroña did various bucket fermentations throughout the vineyard and had the resulting vino tested. The overwhelming result seems to be similar to other vineyards — red grapes were affected more than white grapes, and those were already fermenting.

As smoke settles in a vineyard if it is less than 24 hours old, it may be more likely to be absorbed into the grape skin, according to University of California, Davis, viticulture and enology researchers. Also, one point to remember is that red wine is made with the skin intact, whereas white wines are made without the skin.

Most of Madroña’s red grapes will go into making more rosé wines, including a Rucksack Cabernet Franc Rosé.

“Rosé lovers should be really excited about this year,” Bush said.

All in all, Paul, who runs the winery along with wife Maggie, has considered the challenges regarding their red grapes an educational experience.

“The 2021 vintage with all its challenges has actually pushed us to learn more about making great wines,” said Bush. “Understanding the nuances and influences of a particular vintage makes us think outside the box even more to produce the best wine.”

The overall outlook on El Dorado County’s 2021 grape harvest seems to be optimistic.

“The wineries of El Dorado County are committed to producing wine of outstanding quality and this year is no different,” said Kara Sather, El Dorado Winery Association executive director.

“Consumers can rest assured that local winemakers will not bottle wine that has been influenced by the presence of smoke. As in the past, any wines put forward to the consumer will continue to be of the highest quality and reflect the beautiful soils, terroir and elevation that our mountain-grown fruit is known for.”

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