When the fires come, as they have for the past five years in California wine country, there is little winemakers can do.
The wine in my glass tasted like drought. It was hot, red-hot. My face blushed; my forehead tingled. I took another sip. Heady. Dense. Alcohol near 15 percent.
Los Angeles Times
Fields are left fallow
•Orchards are removed
•Vegetable yields are low
•Honey harvest is small
•Fish rescue and relocation begins
•Pine beetle infestation occurs
•Forest mortality is high
•Wetlands dry up
•Survival of native plants and animals is low
•Fewer wildflowers bloom
•Wildlife death is widespread
•Algae blooms appear
The list could also include: Vines are weakened, endangering future crops. Photosynthesis is inhibited; grapes cannot ripen. Harvest, once a time of joy, becomes a time of unease. One wildfire, one hot spell, could wipe out years’ worth of labor. When there is no water, there are no grapes.
As I write, it is August in Oakland and the sky is dim. The fog rolling in from the San Francisco Bay does not break; by midday, it has warped into a stagnant haze. It’s only the beginning of wildfire season and already I am losing track. Is this smoke from the Dixie Fire? The Antelope Fire? Wildfires, I’ve learned, get their names from the places they originated. Country roads. Rural towns. Mountain peaks. I wonder what the next one will be christened.
Watching the inferno sky take shape, I realize harvest is already underway in some parts of the state. In other areas, winemakers are anxiously waiting to pick. Some try to prepare for the inevitable. They graft vines onto drought-resistant rootstocks. They prune vines so that leaves may eventually shade grapes from sunburn, or they remove leaves so that grapes might ripen faster for earlier picking. They pick earlier anyway—making wine that is more acidic and less alcoholic—to avoid harvesting during the worst wildfire months, September and October.
When the fires come, as they have for the past five years in California wine country, there is little winemakers can do. They leave their grapes hanging on the vine to collect ash; they abandon their juice in the cellar as it’s fermenting. They use temperature controls in fermenting tanks to separate grape juice from ash. They make rosés instead of reds, removing smoky skins before the taste of wildfire overwhelms. This is to say: They adapt.
In other parts of the world, climate change is also altering wines. Where it was once too cold to grow vines, in places like England or Vermont, farmers are now finding warmer temperatures suitable for viticulture. Elsewhere, the changes are devastating. Unseasonable hail and frost have destroyed crops in France. Germany’s vineyards were washed out during this summer’s floods. In warmer regions, alcohol is creeping up. Those wines taste like a heating planet.
When the world is on fire, wine may not seem a particularly grievous loss. But if, recalling my friend Carmen’s words, wines are a historical record—of the land, the climate, the people who make it—they are also memory keepers, reminding us of a time when the earth was able to produce such a drink. The wines of the past are long gone.
The other day, I drove to Treasure Island to help a friend bottle his 2020 wines. Last year, he told me, was “pretty miserable.” Lightning storms struck Santa Cruz and Mendocino counties, where he grows grapes, resulting in a series of wildfires that burned more than a million acres. Ash covered his vineyards, and smoke during harvest made breathing difficult. With his red grape varieties, he decided to make rosés to avoid the worst effects of smoke taint. “Pink wines,” he said, shaking his head. He was bored of them, but as long as wildfire smoke choked up his harvests, stronger red wines were not viable.
When we finished work for the day, my friend gifted me and the other helpers a few bottles from 2020. I thought about saving them for a while, to recall the time and place from which they came, that year of fire and storms and heat. But they’re young wines, meant to be drunk soon, so one evening, I opened a bottle to share. It was cool and light, like water.
Meg Bernhard is a writer from California's Inland Empire who spent several years living in Spain and Belgium. She's written for the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Guernica, and others. An essay she wrote for Hazlitt about finding meaning in shared grief will be published in the 2021 Best American Travel Writing anthology. She is currently working on a book about wine and power.