Fire on the Mountain!

by Tamra Botlon

Reading reports this year of the wildfires across the Western U.S. is sobering.  Millions of acres scorched, homes and livelihoods destroyed, brave firefighters giving their lives in the line of duty…coupled with the on-going drought, it is enough to weary the staunchest optimist.

Not only are beautiful forests and countryside being decimated, but California’s farmers are struggling to keep their crop loss to a minimum.  Of course, I am especially interested in the grape crop, since California grows the majority of the USA’s grapes and California produces ninety percent of our American made wines.  Not only are the California vineyards suffering from the raging wildfires and smoke, but they have the extra hardship of the four year drought, heat and water restrictions.

Heat and drought are two subjects I am very familiar with since our part of Texas suffers regularly with both.  Right now, it’s drier than the Sahara here, not a drop of rain since June and the heat index has hovered around 105-110 degrees for over three weeks straight.  August has not been kind to either Texas or California.

This deadly combination of weather and wildfire has many winemakers and consumers a little nervous about the 2015 California crop.  According to the Napa Valley Vinters (the trade organization of wine makers), “there are no reports of vineyards being damaged by the wildfires, and most of the time, the smoke has been blowing away from Napa County.”  While this is reassuring in a way, it still doesn’t address the larger question of reduced yield, how much the heat will affect the sugar content in the grapes and if the dense smoke will alter the taste of the wines made at the vineyards close to the wildfires.  The smoke has been so thick and widespread at times; vineyard owners in Oregon and Washington are concerned about damage.


Red grapes are the primary concern, since their skins are included in the wine-making process.   They are most vulnerable to the smoke’s effects during the next few weeks, when the grapes begin to soften, right before harvest.  This season is about three weeks early, making the smoke an even bigger concern.

The Australian Department of Agriculture and Food said in one report that “smoke can cause aromas and flavors resembling smoked meat, disinfectant, leather, salami and ashtrays.”   Yikes!

Let’s hope the California grapes have a different fate.

Many people are predicting a rise in prices since production may be lower over the next few years because of the drought’s long range effects on the vines.  Keith Wallace, a wine expert, recommends buying good vintages while they are still around because “the quality may be dropping some”. ( If the smoke predictions come true, this will definitely affect the quality, quantity and the prices.)

While stocking up on your favorites is always a good idea, I believe we should especially support our USA wine producers during this tough time.  While I love a good Argentine Malbec or Italian Nebbiolo, the next few years, I plan to stock my wine cabinet a little heavy on the California labels.

It always feels good to support our American farmers, especially when they produce such an enjoyable product.  Let’s raise a glass to California wine makers and growers and the 2015 harvest!