Rescuing California’s Hellish 2020 Wine Vintage

Did Santa Barbara’s Smoke-Free Grapes Save the State? Or Did the State Save Us?

Santa Barbara County was one of the few wine grape-growing regions in the state that wasn’t burning during the harvest season. But this small wildfire did scorch vineyards just west of Buellton before harvest back in June. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Even before wicked heat spikes and wildfires started ravaging the state and spreading the specter of smoke taint far and wide, California was preparing for a rough vintage of wine in 2020, particularly for growers in Santa Barbara County. Coming off of two bountiful and beautiful vintages in 2018 and 2019, facing an oversaturated market of producers large and small, and then smashed with the unprecedented uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers expected the price of grapes to be the lowest in recent memory, harking back to those pre-Sideways days.

And then much of California went up in flames, including many wine-growing regions. While Napa and Sonoma attracted most of the national attention, critical Central Coast appellations faced similar disasters.

Winemakers in the Santa Cruz Mountains beat back flames around their homes and wineries, only to lose entire crops to smoke and heat. In Monterey County, many vintners in the Santa Lucia Highlands were so surrounded by fires from Salinas and the Carmel Valley that they didn’t pick any red grapes, a stunning blow to one of the world’s top pinot noir regions. (White-wine grapes were less affected.) Smoke taint, which comes across on the nose and palate more like acerbic ashtray than toasty hickory in finished wines, is also affecting a tiny fraction of grapes in Paso Robles and the Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County. 

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Yet, for once, wildfire-weary Santa Barbara was not beset on all sides by flashes of orange flame and sky-high columns of smoke this summer. With very rare exceptions, our grapes are testing free from smoke taint. And while it was a furious, all-at-once kind of vintage due to the heat spikes that started around Labor Day, the fermenting wines appear to be in line with those beauties of the past two vintages.

Which is why, more than ever before, there were numerous winemakers from up north poking around Santa Barbara County vineyards come harvest time. Especially in search of high-end pinot noir, but also ready for everything from syrah to cabernet sauvignon, these out-of-town producers helped boost grape prices for many Santa Barbara growers.

Most still earned less than the usual price per ton, and plenty of fruit was just left unpicked, as the market remains flooded and pandemic-spooked. But the doom days that were predicted mellowed out considerably by harvest, while those growers from up north who’d otherwise lost everything found some solace in Santa Barbara.

“The one place that seems like it came through largely unscathed was Santa Barbara County,” said Adam Lee, the Santa Rosa–based founder of Siduri, Clarice, and Beau Marchais wines. Lee knows a number producers from both Monterey and Sonoma counties who came to the region for grapes. “Then there are other producers, like Siduri and Walt [which buys most of the Clos Pepe Vineyard], who already work in Santa Barbara, but it’s going to be a far greater emphasis for them than in previous years.”  

Though Jeff Pisoni and his family did make some experimental lots from their Santa Lucia Highlands red grapes — “As a winemaker, I still wanted to pick something,” he said — he came to the Sta. Rita Hills to fulfill what he needed for his Luli brand, which usually produces about 6,000 or so cases of pinot each year. Their fears over smoke taint were compounded by the fact that there was a massive delay in testing, so big decisions had to be made somewhat blind. 

But by sourcing this year from Peake Ranch, La Encantada, and Zotovich, Pisoni was able to fill more than half of what was needed for Luli. His neighbors, the Franscioni family of Roar Wines fame, also came to the Sta. Rita Hills for fruit. 

They’ve been impressed with what they found. Luli is typically a blend of vineyards, but Pisoni explained, “The grapes were really good, so maybe some will be single-vineyard wines.” For Lucia and Pisoni, the family’s top-end estate brands, there won’t be any 2020 reds, only about 1,000 cases of chardonnay. 

“Surely, Santa Barbara County helped fill that gap in the fire zones,” confirmed Jeff Newton, whose company Coastal Vineyard Care manages numerous properties. But he’s quick to note that the bulk wine market — which consists of finished but unbottled wines that are sold from winery to winery —also came through in the clutch for many wineries. 

“Two weeks before the fires, the bulk market was super flooded with wine,” said Newton, specifically referring to the unsold amounts from the 2019 harvest. “Then after the fires, people were coming to Santa Barbara County, but they were also dipping into the bulk market in a big way. They are way down on the bulk inventories now.”

Therein lies a potential upside: After a few years approaching a glut of wines across California, the fires and smoke taint fears may have forced the overall market back in balance. “It’s a little hard to tell right now, but some people say that we are back in an equilibrium,” explained Newton. 

The downside, of course, is that many small, family-owned vineyards that couldn’t sell any fruit at all might not recover at all. “You’re gonna lose some growers in this process, and that’s concerning,” said Lee, who works with vineyards from Lompoc to Oregon, which also suffered from wildfires. “Some very good people perhaps won’t make it because they didn’t get paid for their work this year.” 

For the most part, Santa Barbara County growers narrowly escaped such a fate in 2020, and helped other regions survive along the way. But as our summers keep getting hotter, drier, and more wildfire-friendly, it’s highly possible that Santa Barbara winemakers may need to look north during harvests to come.

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