What. A. Year. The wine world is a very diverse web, and grasping the totality of it, even just within California, is a lot to ask. But many people have had questions, so here is a brief overview touching on several of the hot topics that dominated the 2020 vintage.
Tariffs – If you find yourself buying less Bordeaux these days, this may be why. Italy and Spain have (luckily) avoided tariffs, while France saw a 53% reduction in US wine exports over the year. This was partly driven by the Covid-driven closure of restaurants as well as the massive tariffs themselves. Also for consideration, most affordable glass bottles come from either China or Gallo, and Chinese glass faced multiple tariffs this year, or you can pay more to Gallo. Talk about a painful decision. Which brings us to:
Restaurants – Prima Materia’s California distributor was one of many who focused on restaurant sales rather than retail. Whoops. Restaurant channel shift was a gift for the evil grocery wine empire (Gallo, Bronco, The Wine Group, Treasury, etc.) and it destroyed restaurants’ highest margin sales category. Those overpriced by-the-glass pours are what kept the lights on for many restaurants.
Monopoly – Somehow, in the midst of all this, the FTC gave Gallo the green light to acquire 30+ brands from Constellation for $810,000,000.00. The Safeway wine aisle is estimated to become 35-40% Gallo wine now, which includes Mondovi, Ravenswood, Clos du Bois, Mark West, Apothic, Barefoot, and so many more, even including Renato Ratti (great Barolo) and Tornatore (great Sicilian). Know your friends if you can't keep track of your enemies.
Labor – The agriculture labor market (which is not a great place to be, let’s be honest) is continuing to shrink. These are low paying, dangerous, difficult jobs that we don’t want to do, that are now blessed by being “essential.” Pickers were VERY in demand this year when everyone decided their grapes need to be picked right now before any more smoke exposure. $150 per ton became $200 per ton, and then $230. People were working 20-hour days, or just leaving in the middle of a pick to go to a higher paying vineyard via text. One of my most bizarre experiences was starting to pick at 10pm by headlight (it was still 80 degrees!) after a 105F day in the dark with a broken-down tractor and we had all been working since 5am. Equipment was also cursed this year, overheating, breaking, spewing hydraulic fluid for everyone. The bad part was how many times you overheard that so-and-so was sick, or many people mysteriously muy malo. This is where the ethical dimension of Covid needs light, and when we hear about the San Joaquin Valley being “hit very hard,” this is the food production reality we are so insulated from.
Heat – It was hot. 56 days hit 95 degrees or higher this year at the vineyard, and that was on top of entering the year in full drought conditions. The vines weathered the 110-degree heatwave surprisingly well, but throughout California we all had problems with stuck fermentations unless you picked your grapes before the first heatwave on September 4th. The heat depletes nutrients in the grapes that the yeast need during fermentation, and many of us are still nursing a couple struggling fermentations three months later.
Grape Market – If there is a bright side to Covid and walls of flame, it is that they helped stabilize the grape market. It was in a very bad place after the 2018 harvest, which was way too big while consumption was going flat for the first time in decades. It was hard to sell grapes in 2019, and at the beginning of 2020 there were 25 million gallons of surplus wine on the bulk market. Nothing was moving, nothing selling. Contracts had been broken in 2019 with the surplus, and even the Gallo-Constellation deal created problems as prices crashed and an estimated 30,000 acres needed to be pulled out to balance supply. But in April people were stocking up on wine like crazy, some surplus went to sanitizer, and by December 2020 that 25 million gallons had shrunk amazingly to 7 million gallons, which is incredible considering right after harvest is always a high point anyway. Suddenly the grape market was considered balanced and with consumption up (remember dry January?) and the wine market oracles were smiling. Ta-da. Of course, much of this growth is grocery store wine priced under $14, and as always, corporate wine is crushing it while small businesses suffer, but with so much growth, even us small producers have survived on inertia’s fumes. A huge thank you here to wine club members!
Vintage – How to approach a vintage discussion with all of these related factors? Structurally we can say that winter rain was insufficient, the vines started growing with limited water, so canopy growth and the grape crop were minimal. This made vineyard management life a little easier, though it would necessitate more drip irrigation later. Many of our cultivars were down 30-50% this year. We had some spring frost which also decreased crop a bit, as well as retarding growth. The Sagrantino was hit particularly hard, but thanks to its vigorous nature it recovered and pushed new growth effectively.
The year by July 15th was set up for a small, concentrated crop, and with limited water regulating the leaves, that meant that it was potentially a very good vintage with lower alcohol relative to concentration. As the season progressed the fruit was looking good, and we cranked out bottling weekly while fine tuning canopies. July was kind of hot, but not so much that quality was in jeopardy. Our Lake County 2018 fire started July 27th, so I was already crossing my fingers before August hit.
From there came large heat spikes including all-time record heat and fire, which is still in all of our memories. In the middle of August right before the LNU Complex started on August 17th I was hearing about dry-farmed (no irrigation) vineyards on the verge of collapsing. Generally the hotter the weather, you get more jammy fruit flavors, and less complexity, so we started to worry as well that it was just going to be a hot, cooked out year. Despite growing anxiety after two weeks of smoke, I judged our early-ripening grapes (Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and Negro Amaro) to not be ready yet when the 110F days came over Labor Day weekend. Most grapes actually hibernate when the heat gets over 95F, and evening temperature starts to drive the ripening curve in those conditionsI agonized over this hourly as the heat ramped up. To be worrying about this on top of smoke was crazy, plus I was hearing you couldn’t even find people to pick if you wanted. I applied our little bit of drip irrigation, and said a little prayer.
Smoke-wise the fires remained 22 miles away from our vineyard, something very fortunate. As more science coalesces around smoke, the importance of proximity is becoming clear. For us it became the question of old ash. Would 20 days in old smoke at a 200 particulate rating equal one day one mile from a fire at 500? More people were talking about the UV breakdown of smoke compounds in the atmosphere. We are even starting to see that different clones of the same grape absorb smoke differently. We all must spray something for mildew control. Is that sulfur interacting with smoke? Is out mineral oil spray helping or hurting? The harder you look, the more complex it seems, and remediation is still unknown.
As the first round of fires died down – and remember that there were many fires that burned for months – we entered a post-heatwave/fire moment. There was a brief period of calm, like an adrenaline hangover in mid/late September. Things were quiet, too quiet. I was also managing picking at another property about 12 miles from ours. On September 26th I got home at 10:30pm, took a shower, had sip of beer and a bite, and fell asleep. I woke up 4 hours later and started driving back through Napa. It was around 4am, so why did it feel like the sun was coming up? Things got weird, then smokey, then orange. As I neared Deer Park Road an orange hurricane sat in the middle of Napa Valley. The wind was violent, it was hot while dark, and embers flew everywhere. For me, and for many others, the spirit of the vintage ended with the Glass Fire. I saw it burning up Spring Mountain later with a dull PTSD disinterest. We finished up our season early (thankfully) about two weeks after, but the fun was gone, and waiting for power shutoffs wasn’t scary anymore. I’m glad we wrapped up, and the vintage should make decent fruit-forward wines, though not dramatically deep. It was, all things considered, not a great year, but it was indeed a vintage.