4 ways the Napa Valley Glass fire blaze will change the wine industry

“While the skies have cleared, the full extent of the impact on the harvest, and industry, is anything but clear,” wine innovator Nicholas Mendiharat, CEO of Palate Club, said on a visit last week to the Napa Valley region. The prestigious region, forming the heart of the nearly 40 billion dollar wine industry of California, has barely survived one of the worst fires in its history—the impact of which, is only just beginning to be felt and understood.

Every summer seems to feature larger and more damaging wildfires in California. This year saw both ​four of the largest fires​ in the state’s history, and an unprecedented endangerment of California’s wine sector. While politicians debate over who is at fault and ​who ought to cover the bill for life-saving interventions and preventions, it is important to look at some of the early impact of the dramatic events on the region’s most precious and iconic exports: wine.

The Glass Fire blaze damaged some wineries, but the vines saved more.

While over 1,200 buildings and homes​ were destroyed by the Napa Valley Glass fire, and many vineyards scorched or burned, the situation could have been much worse. Dry brush and desiccated trees are highly flammable while vines are wet and living plants that are harder to burn. While this is more true in the height of summer irrigation season, even late in the summer they provide less fuel and are more fire resistant than the untamed areas of the valley.

The wide spacing between vines, and the relatively clear earth between them also help make them a better firebreak than the landscape would naturally offer. Thus some wineries and homes which would have been in great danger were easier to protect, or came out unscathed, thanks to the vines​!

Does this mean California will authorize more vine planting to prevent fires…probably not. But it is certainly a side of the California fires that few know about, a small piece of good news in trying times. Unfortunately, the rest of the news is…not good.

Smoke taint from Glass fire puts entire Napa Valley grape harvest at risk

The most significant danger of fire is often it’s most underestimated: Smoke. Smoke inhalation accounts for more deaths a year from fires than the fires themselves. The same is true for vineyards, ​if not even more so.

When smoke and ash particles are in the air, they can easily get absorbed into the skin of the grapes. Since the grapes are then pressed and, in the case of red wine, left to ferment with the juice, the acrid taste of smoke and ash associated with the particles penetrates into the wine! This can range from a very mild “barbeque” flavor to an overpowering ashtray aroma, by and large ruining the wine completely.

Some grapes (Chardonnay among them!) were harvested between the august fires and the Glass fire of September, and thus may have been spared the worst of the taint. Others, notably the Cabernet Sauvignon for which the region is internationally acclaimed, were still on the vine throughout the fire and smoky aftermath. There is no way of knowing for sure how much of the 2020 crop will be lost, but it is safe to say that, with so many grapes left to absorb the smoke, it won’t be a good year.

Or at least, they should have been left on the vines, but some vintners took great risks to try and harvest them before the smoke could set in.

Unsafe wine labor practices highlighted by the Napa Valley Glass Fire

While most vintners had evacuated, or bravely stayed behind to battle the flames around their homes and livelihoods, some tried to salvage what they could of the harvest despite the risks.​ Even deep into the evacuation zones, some workers could be seen, barely protected against fire or smoke, struggling to harvest as many of the precious grapes as possible.

It is of course, understandable for winemakers to want to get what they can out of this abysmal year, but putting lives and health at risk to do it? It is a sign of how bad the year has been, between Covid and the fires, that winemakers would go to such lengths. But it is a sign of the deep inequalities and structural labor problems that they were able to do so.

Grape pickers are almost all seasonal workers, sometimes undocumented, often Latino, who depend on the harvest for their livelihoods as much, or more so, than the winemakers. They have little choice but to take the money when offered, even if the conditions are dangerous.

Everyone’s decision is understandable, but the end result is unacceptable.​

This comes right off the back of the COVID-19 epidemic, which has also put many of these workers in danger. Housed in close quarters in temporary,  almost dorm- or barracks-like facilities during the season, they are at very high risk of contagion, and some clusters have already been linked to such labor.

Clearly, the state needs to take action to better supervise this industry’s labor practices, for the safety of all, and the respect the workers deserve for their key role in this international gem of the winemaking world!

Tourism is the final victim, and final hope, for many wineries in Napa Valley

The beautiful hills and sprawling vineyards of Napa Valley (and its neighboring Sonoma county) draw millions of visitors a year, and billions in revenue. For many wineries, especially the small artisanal producers for which the region is known, these tourists represent a key source of revenue.

Revenue already decimated by the pandemic, the fires of August and September seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of the year’s income for many wineries. Who would want to visit charred hills and breath smoke after all?

Luckily it seems that once the fires died down and the smoke cleared, some tourists did show up after all! Yet the dependency of wineries—especially small ones—on this source of sales for their fine products, remains a fundamental weakness of the region’s otherwise robust viticulture. While it is wonderful to see people returning to the valley, it may be the digital presence that saves many wineries.

Digital revolution has helped many Napa Valley wineries, and could save more

Despite the Glass Fire and pandemic’s best efforts, the Napa Valley wine industry will survive this year. But not every winery will. Even amongst those not destroyed directly, the loss of tourism income or harvest may harm them irrevocably. Some though can hold on better than others, especially those already well-positioned online.

Some of the more forward-thinking innovators, or larger digitally savvy juggernauts, among the wineries already started moving their sales, marketing, and communication online, reducing their dependency on the tourist market. These have been some of the most promising success stories of the 2020 season. But many of these already had some exposure, private experience, or funds, needed to jump-start their business online.

More may turn in the future to solutions like Palate Club’s. They offer unique taste matching technology to put customers in touch with wines they will enjoy, helping small and/or artisanal wineries get their fine products to the customers who deserve them. Whether it is through their delivery service or others who work primarily online, we expect to see the Glass Fire pushing more wineries to cross the digital frontier.

Like this, everyone benfits. Consumers get easier access to better wines. The wine sector will no longer depend entirely on the fickle tourism sector. And every other little winery whose tasteful product deserves its time in the sun, not smoke, will get the attention it deserves. It would be a small silver lining to the big cloud of smoke produced by the Glass Fire, but Napa valley deserves that and more. If you cannot visit Napa Valley in person to pick up a bottle, consider looking online to find one!

Tina Johnson helped bring The Marketing Folks from a-weekly newsletter to a full-fledged news site by creating a new website and branding. She continues to assist in keeping the site responsive and well organized for the readers. As a contributor to The Marketing Folks, Tara mainly covers industry new.