But, unlike Hoefliger, Regalia’s instincts led him to keep his grapes on the vine, believing they weren’t ripe enough to make good wine. If he ended up with tainted wine, he reasoned, he’d attempt to filter the smoky aromas out by pumping the wine through a filter and then adding powdered carbon to further separate out the smoky compounds. But he said these measures wouldn’t be guaranteed to work.
The rush to pick grapes and quickly turn them into wine before smoke taint sets in has the region’s fermentation vats being used far more heavily than they normally would be. Materra, for example, has 48 vats that it rents out to clients across Napa Valley. Normally, Regalia processes, or “crushes,” just over 20 tons of grapes per week for his winery and others. After the fires broke out last week, he crushed over 50 tons, working more than 15 hours a day. When electricity was scarce across the valley, he rewired the winery’s switchboard himself to divert power from other parts of the grounds to help keep the vats cool.
For now, one of the biggest points of uncertainty for winemakers is how much their grapes—which would normally have been processed this fall, left to ferment for up to a month, and then sold one or several years later—have been impacted by smoke from the fires. Until the recently picked grapes are turned into wine, nobody can know for certain which vineyards’ grapes were hit with the worst of the smoke taint. “Smoke taint varies greatly by location, even within the same region,” says Jim Lapsley, an adjunct associate professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis.
From a business standpoint, larger, mass-market wineries—which account for a relatively small proportion of Sonoma and Napa Valley’s wine production, in monetary terms—are better positioned to absorb an economic blow, such as from a smoke-tainted yield, than smaller wineries. That said, wineries that produce lots of wine can be exposed to greater risk because they oftentimes have large long-term contracts to fill, according to Eyler, the Sonoma State professor.
“We don’t know yet how many vineyards have been impacted,” Eyler says, adding that the region will likely spend many months assessing the damage to harvests. That process has many winemakers’ minds on possible insurance payouts, since most take out policies on their crops to hedge against the possibility of a bad harvest.
Regalia says he and other Napa Valley winemakers are bracing for what could be a tedious, drawn-out battle with insurance companies over the real value of grapes in the valley. While insurance plans differ, recoupment is widely based off what winemakers call the “Napa Valley average.” Premium Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, for example, are assessed at almost $7,000 per ton. While that is far above the statewide average of $800 per ton, it creates problems for the valley’s super-high-end winemakers, which value their Cabernet Sauvignon at upwards of $12,000 per ton and add hundred-dollar markups on bottles of wine made with essentially the same grapes grown by less prestigious wineries. “It’s a value-added business,” Regalia says. “If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be here.”