The 2020 vintage in California is not one that the state’s natives are likely to forget. Wildfires ravaged the region, and the wines – now being released – are being tainted just by the idea of the smoke that those fires produced. But there is much more to be said about the year – which was also harvested and made in the midst of the covid pandemic, only adding to the immense stress of the season.
The winter was relatively warm and dry, with cool weather at flowering, a mild spring and then a hot, dry summer, although there continued to be a significant diurnal shift – perfect for ripening grapes, retaining freshness and developing aromatics. The heat struck just as producers like Cathy Corison were picking, and – unlike in 2018 or 2019 when the harvest was long – winemakers mostly looked to get the fruit in as quickly as possible. Almost everyone agrees that 2020 was set to be a fantastic vintage before the fires – with small, thick-skinned berries that had great promise. As Steve Matthiasson told us, “It was going to be an epic season.”
It’s important to be aware of the key dates for the fires. The LNU Lightning Complex started on 17th August, however it was the Glass Fire that posed the most significant threat to Napa, with that second blaze sparked on 27th September near the Silverado Trail, east of St Helena.
There are producers that chose to make no wine in 2020 (including Colgin, Joseph Phelps and Shafer), producers who made all their wines, and producers who made a reduced range. Insurance was a challenge. Those who had crop insurance weren’t able to claim if they picked any fruit – so many didn’t take the risk of harvesting what could have been flawless fruit, but also could have been tainted, leaving growers in the lurch, while those that farm their own vineyards were much more likely to give it a go. Some producers were able to share the financial burden with growers, but that wasn’t a viable choice for everyone.
Many producers frantically tested for the phenolic compounds responsible for smoke taint, but the local laboratories couldn’t handle the influx, with tests taking weeks. Some resorted to sending samples to as far away as Australia, while others were fortunate enough to be able to test in house. Mike and Leah Smith of Myriad Cellars, for example, tested all their fruit twice, sending it to Canada, to guarantee there were no free or bound phenols that could taint the wine. Togni reportedly tested their wines, but – having received the official all-clear and bottled the wines – decided not to release them as they weren’t quite convinced.
Micro-ferments were another option to help producers decide whether or not to pick, in theory testing to see if the smoke taint emerged once the fruit was fermented. The nature, however, of the compounds responsible for the taint means that they can emerge in bottle rather than immediately, meaning this offered no guarantees. There were so many complex factors at play, reputational and financial, as well as practical, that made the year a quagmire for producers to navigate. But it doesn’t mean the year should be written off entirely by wine lovers – we’ve tasted some beautiful wines from the vintage that are more than worthy of your attention.
Producers are generally divided by those who picked before and after the Glass Fire – and those who picked before that fateful date in Napa had no issues with smoke taint. There are many factors when it comes to smoke taint (covered more extensively here), including the distance from the fire and the direction of the wind, making it an inexact science. As Steve Matthiasson flagged, however, there was a challenge with ripening in 2020 – with the haze from fires reducing the light level and meaning some grapes weren’t necessarily as phenolically ripe as normal. This, combined with the fact that smoke taint compounds are held in the skins, means that cautious producers tended towards lighter extraction, and in a handful of instances producers even made rosé instead of red wine.
The hot, dry growing season meant that harvest dates were naturally set to be early, but producers who already tend to pick on the earlier side were particularly favoured. Corison had all her fruit in two and a half weeks before the Glass Fire. Her challenge was to ensure smoke didn’t get into the winery, tainting the ferments rather than fruit on the vine. She installed two industrial-grade air filters to keep the smoke out and the resulting wines are “beautiful”. The key for her was to pick as fast as she could, but the ripening season was “almost perfect”, although yields are down around 25% because of the hot conditions.
Maya Dalla Valle is another producer who made a full vintage – one she’s proud of despite it being the most stressful she’s ever produced. Their team picked in the first week of September. They washed the grapes – something that some producers do as standard (eg Dominus) – just in case there was any ash that had drifted from the first fire, using two vibrating sorting tables to shake off the excess water before it went into tank. They also chose to use a little less new oak at first, but after the first racking upped the proportions.
At Dominus, the team picked between 2nd and 27th September, with yields 40% lower than normal due to the heat and drought. They found extra selection was required with shrivelled berries from the dramatic heat spikes seen during the season. Robert Mondavi, however, only managed to make the early-picked whites and Pinot Noir from their more coastal sites, with no Cabernet from 2020.
The conditions forced the team at Promontory to pick early, and while they were already pulling back on harvest dates, they feel the 2020 season was a nudge they needed – a risk that has more than paid off with the stunning wine they produced. For Will Harlan and Cory Empting, the dry start to the season meant the vines and cropload were small, allowing the fruit to ripen sufficiently in the compact season. For them, the year is closest to 2011 or 1998, a year that will likely be consistently underrated and overperform.
As vines act as a natural firebreak, few vineyards suffered any long-term damage – however Eisele is an exception, with 90 acres of hillside lost, and 1,000 vines that will need replanting. Fortunately, all their fruit was picked before the fire raged through the property.
With so much unknown about smoke taint, it’s unsurprising that critics seem to be cautious about the year. Reviews and scores are mixed. Vinous’s Antonio Galloni is quick to applaud the efforts producers made in the remarkable year, but feels that some of the wines aren’t very good. He notes, as Steve Matthiasson did, that with nature forcing some producers’ hands with harvest dates, some wines have coarse tannins, however he finds less pronounced smoke taint than in the 2017s.
Jeb Dunnuck advises that it is a year to approach “with extreme caution”, given the unpredictability of smoke taint, however states that “there are some terrific wines” – highlighting those from Bond, Carter, Crocker & Starr, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Paul Hobbs and Spottswoode, to name a few.
Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW (The Wine Independent) compares the growing season to that of 2017, but feels the resulting wines – at their best – are riper and weightier, with more purity. Although there are some wines marked by smoke taint, others are “wonderfully impressive” (indeed, she’s already given Harlan and Promontory 100 points).
The 2020 vintage is far from simple, but it shouldn’t be dismissed totally. There are some beautiful wines, totally unmarred by the year’s conditions. We won’t pretend there aren’t wines that are lesser, although we have to admit this is on hearsay alone based on our tastings so far, but – at the top of the quality spectrum, where finances allow the attention to detail required to achieve excellence – there is nothing for producers to gain by releasing flawed wines. Take these wines one by one, assessing their worth and value, and you’re guaranteed to be rewarded.
The vintage in brief
- A vintage set to be remembered for both wildfires and the covid pandemic
- Not every producer in the region made wine, with smoke taint an issue for some
- A challenging year that favoured producers who pick early
- A hot, dry season that made for low yields (reduced by 20-50%) and concentrated wines
- Rich, ripe and concentrated
- Despite the challenges, there are some stunning wines to be found