“Either give me more wine, or leave me alone,” said Rumi.
With the pandemic stretching into a year and a half, natural disasters like fires and floods, and the beleaguered supply chain making life even more difficult, the American people need a great glass of wine now more than ever. There is nothing like a good bottle of wine to make the people around you more palatable and to make the world look a little brighter. But if you, like Rumi, need more wine, then you might be frustrated trying to get quality California wines at the moment.
California is the heart of the wine industry in America, and “According to the Wine Institute, in 2019, there were 4,200 bonded wineries in the state producing 242 million cases of wine, with a retail value of $43.6 billion. Three out of every five bottles of wine produced in America are Californian.” There are over 635,000 acres of wine grapes in the state of California alone. Clearly, California is a big part of America’s wine industry and when things are rocky there, the ripples move across the country.
This being said, if there is a problem in California with its wine production, then the whole country will suffer. And one of the big problems California has had lately is the intensity of wildfires across the region. California has been inundated with wildfires over the last two years, and this has affected the grape harvest immensely. And the problem is not only with the flames and fires themselves.
The smoke damage from fires can be even more problematic, because the smoke can spread so far through the air, away from the original fire. Because grape skins are so porous, grapes are highly susceptible to smoke damage, especially the very thin-skinned grapes like pinot noir. If these grapes come into contact with smoke damage, they end up tasting like an ashtray.
Wineries across the country have suffered. “We harvested some of the red grapes after the fire, and the results ranged from not good to terrible. My name is on every bottle we make, so we dumped the 2020 wine and dropped the remaining grapes from the vine onto the ground. The lost revenue hurts; it would hurt more, and for longer, if my reputation for quality was damaged.” Tom Gamble explained. He is an integral part of the Gamble Family Vineyards in Napa’s Yountville and St. Helena area.
According to the Bay City News, “Last year’s double whammy of the pandemic and devastating wildfires had a severe impact on Napa County’s agricultural production. The value of wine grape crops dropped from $937 million in 2019 to $461 million in 2020. Production also decreased by 60,000 tons compared to 2019.” This is terrible news for those looking for their next bottle of cabernet sauvignon.
The wildfires were one thing, but the pandemic also wreaked havoc with the wine industry. Although the pandemic did boost at-home sales of wine while Americans were locked down at home, the revenue lost from restaurants and events left a hole in the industry that was not filled by the extra home wine use. There was a significant 50% drop in production and revenue over the last two years.
“Agricultural Commissioner Tracy Cleveland tied this 50% drop to the LNU Complex and Glass wildfires in Northern California last year, as well as COVID-19’s economic impact. This is Napa’s lowest agricultural production value since 2011, a year where grape growth was impacted by unseasonable rain.”
It stands to reason that much of the economic boon from wine comes from dinners, parties, weddings, and conferences. And without all of the usual events taking place because of the pandemic, wine sales have dropped.
Another problem that the average consumer might not realize is that wine tastings have always been a big part of the wine arsenal, and they have been all but halted in California due to the pandemic, even tastings that take place outside.
California has been hard hit by regulations, but people are certainly ready to get their regular life back, and time will tell when things will be fully back to normal. “Given the pent-up thirst among Californians itching to get out again, restricting the number of visitors at California’s 4,200 wineries — most of them small, family-owned affairs — may be easier said than done.”
The staff at each winery have been doing their best. Because they are considered agricultural workers, they were among the first to get vaccinated, and the workers are taking this situation very seriously. Keeping wine tastings safe while still being able to make money for the winery is a delicate balance. Even though wineries are trying to do the right thing, they are not sure that everyone is on board with what is going on.
The winery world faces a long road ahead, but people don’t get into the business of growing grapes and creating delicious wines without having a cup of patience and a pound of resilience. “We can recover,” Cleveland said. “I think in general, speaking holistically, Napa County, the community, the growers are very resilient. They are good at coming back and figuring things out and taking something absolutely devastating and turning it into something that they learn from.”
For the sake of all those across America who need a great glass of cabernet, let’s hope that resilience prevails.