Sometimes numbers can't tell us the story we want to hear or, in the case of this column, write about. When the past is truly mute about the future, when even troubling to make projections is put on hold, when catastrophic events have only begun to reveal their impact, and those we turn to for forecasts are engaged in simply surviving and aiding others—that is when the kind of analysis we ordinarily engage in here must wait.
The horrendous wildfires sweeping sections of California, including swaths of Napa and Sonoma wine country will not allow the story of their legacy to be told for some time. That is not to say that we're not already bombarded with a growing body of facts describing the suffering and destruction. The reason we want to write about it in this column is two-fold. Our first reason is to acknowledge the human toll exacted by an event that is coincidently so important to the U.S. wine industry. The second is to help explain—with the numbers we do have—why this horrible conflagration is important for us to understand.
The twenty-three deaths already attributed to the approximately 22 blazes that have ravaged an estimated 170,000 acres will be only a portion of the final toll. Likewise the more than 3,500 homes and other structures known to have been consumed by flames likewise. Sixty thousand people have been evacuated. Tens of thousands of jobs are certain to be lost. The number of wineries totally destroyed may not rise significantly, although many owners have not yet reported the extent of the damage they endured. Those apparently virtually obliterated are
- Signorello Estate
- White Rock Vineyards
- Stags Leap Winery
- Paradise Ridge Winery
- Gundlach Bundschu Winery
None of these dominate databases like DrinkTell™. A quick look at publicly available numbers for shipments puts Stags Leap at 130,000 cases annually and Gundlach Bunschu at 40,000. But these are certainly among the California wine industry's jewels. They are wineries that we would call tastemakers. They have or would have had a disproportionate influence on others.
The same is true for Napa and Sonoma, which are home to 1,100 wineries. But the two California counties account for just 8-10% of the wine produced in the U.S. The state of California, however, accounts for 85% of all U.S. wine, according to the Wine Institute. We make much of the fact that there are now wineries in all 50 states but California is really dominant or has been.
So what does this future hidden by clouds of smoke look like? In both Napa and Sonoma the harvest was virtually complete when flames broke out on October 9th (Sunday). The crushed juice is in barrels and tanks awaiting vinification. As long as these can be protected there is a upside for the current vintage. But before the fire, other trouble was already on the horizon. The harvest itself had been brutal with 12 days temperatures over 100˚F. Vines were covered with grapes that were already raisins—virtually impossible to make wine from. Total production was already certain to be strangled.
Now there is another problem. Smoke. Smoke tainted grapes remain on many vines. If these may turn into undesirable if not undrinkable wine. It depends on the length of time the grapes are exposed to smoke and is very difficult to evaluate.
Finally, there is the biggest problem and as of today the biggest unknown. The fortune of most producers is unknown. A widely circulated report in Fortune predicts that there could be a severe shortage of grapes for three to five years. That would indeed change the picture of the U.S. wine industry.
For insight into this we can look at our DrinkTell™ database—not as a crystal ball—there is not such thing to be found in the ashes of this fire—but as a revelation of what might have been. Will imports rush in to fill the gap—if there is one? What about other states—Washington, Oregon and New York? (Improbable.) On this, the numbers are silent.