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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
08/14/2015
California Dying: Fire and Rain

By Charles Olken

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end”


With apologies to James Taylor, I cannot get the juxtaposition of those two primal forces out of my mind these days. We certainly have fire and we don’t have rain. But, we have predictions now of rain that could be of amazing proportions from the most powerful El Niño building in the Pacific.

Will California go from cities without water, lawns that are dying, newly planted grapevines that are stunted, farmers and fish fighting each other and wild fires of great and scary magnitude even in August with the hottest part of the year yet to arrive and then transition somehow by mother nature magic into rain that will make us wish for a bit of dryness?

I have lived through several of these El Niño’s now and they are no fun. I have seen flood waters creep up to within six inches of my new home. I have witnessed floods in wine country that destroyed vineyards and threatened the entire downtown of Napa. There is no question that we need the rain—lots and lots of it—but what we do not need is flooding and landslides.

Yet even as the weather forecast tonight focused on the possibility of substantial rainfall in the coming months, California is burning. In some ways, we have been luckier this year, at least in wine country, in that the fires so far seem not to have bothered vineyards on a widespread basis. Yes, vineyard do burn, but that is not the first issue. It is smoke.

Grapes on the vine, it turns out, have a waxy, sticky skin to which smoke particles can adhere. We had lots of “smoke taint” just a few years ago, in 2008 to be more exact, and particularly up in Mendocino County with some wines in neighboring Sonoma also affected and some wines from Lodi affected by a different fire. The final effects to my palate were an ashy aroma and a bitter, burnt bread aftertaste.

So far this year, the fires near wine country, in both Napa and Lake counties have been away from the vineyard areas, but there have been hazy days and the smell of smoke in the air, and while vineyardists are telling CGCW that they do not expect any smoke taint from the current and recent fires, that is both observation of intensity and length of exposure and a bit of wishful thinking.

Fire season is not over. It is just beginning. This weekend is expected to see temperatures back up into triple digits and humidities dropping, and when that happens, fires have a tendency to take off. One can hope for no fires, and certainly we all do, but both in the coming weekend and over the next four to eight weeks, the possibilities of fires that destroy vineyards, wineries and wine will be very high.

Is California dying? Maybe. We could yet have massive fires followed hard by massive flooding. Certainly, the news media has not been shy in alerting us to those possibilites. That is the beauty and the beast of being at the behest of mother nature. The ride this year has been bumpy. Nothing about the near-term future looks any less so.


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For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.

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