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Napa vintner will leave grapes on the vine this year after Hennessey Fire

“Smoke taint” — a lingering effect wildfires can have on grapes on the vine or in the fermenting vessels — is causing at least one Napa County winery to leave grapes on the vine this harvest.

Craig Becker, co-founder, general manager and director of viticulture and winemaking of Somerston Estate, announced Wednesday that his team will not harvest any fruit from the 2020 vintage due to smoke damage from the Hennessey Fire.

Somerston Estate is a 1,682-acre winery estate located in the eastern Vaca Mountains.

Nearly 1,400 acres of the estate burned in the fire, which began Aug. 17. With limited resources initially to combat the blazes, volunteer employees and a privately hired firefighting firm defended the winery’s buildings.

The estate suffered “substantial” vineyard infrastructure damage, yet all the structures were saved, the winery said. The smoke negatively affected the grapes, prompting Becker to cancel the estate’s harvest and notify long-term buyers that the fruit from the 2020 vintage would not be available.

“At Somerston, we take pride in the grapes we grow, sell, and vinify. We make no compromises,” said Becker. “We stand unwavering in our long-term commitment to this property, as well as to our winery partners, customers and distributors.”

The estate is the sole fruit source for the Somerston Estate and Priest Ranch estate-bottled wines and focuses on high-quality viticulture.

“We look forward to the 2021 growing season next year, producing high-quality grapes for our wines and those of our partners,” the winery announcement said.

In August, Philippe Melka, whose St. Helena-based Atelier Melka consulting company makes wine for 10 luxury-tier brands, told the Journal that unlike the 2017 fires that came after many of the premium cabernet sauvignon grapes he works with were ripe, this year the fires arrived just after veraison, the stage of the season when grapes turn color and start ripening.

At that time uncertainty about the impact on given vineyards while smoke from the Hennessey and Walbridge fires in Napa, Lake and Sonoma counties has wafted across multiple states has prompted growers and wineries to flood local testing laboratories with samples.

A lot is at stake with the issue. Harvest is barely underway of the North Coast wine grape crop, which was valued at $1.7 billion last year. Knowing which fruit could have issues and which may not can affect decisions on grape purchasing, harvesting and winemaking.

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