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Longtime Sonoma Valley vintners reflect on this year’s harrowing harvest

With major fires burning through Sonoma County earlier this year than in the past, starting at the onset of the grape harvest, smoke taint has become a substantial concern for farmers.

Sonoma County grape growers whose families have farmed the land for more than 50 years said this harvest is like nothing they’ve experienced before. When wildfires sparked in October 2017 in Wine Country, growers already had picked most of their fruit. Not so this year, with the Walbridge fire lighting up in August, catching them off guard at the start of picking and exposing most of their crops to smoke. Now the Glass fire, which began last week, threatens to bring an early end to harvest.

Buyers are rejecting grapes. Growers watch as fire chars tons of grapes still on the vines. They’re waiting weeks for labs to determine the amount of smoke damage done to their crops, and some are considering crop insurance for the first time.

Here’s what two Sonoma Valley grape-growing families — the Sangiacomos and the Serres — have to say about what they’re up against, as they plan to persevere, despite the relatively modern challenges of smoke taint and fire. “Farming,” said Taylor Serres of Serres Ranch, “is in our blood.”

The Sangiacomos

“Our nerves have been tested through decades of harvests, but the one this year stretched the limits,” said Steve Sangiacomo, a third-generation partner in his family’s Sonoma-based business.

The Sangiacomos began this harvest with 5,300 tons of grapes on the vine. After the mid-August wildfires, they were left with 4,300 tons.

“We have dealt with difficult harvests, but the smoke issue was something that really left us defenseless,” Sangiacomo said. “Our only real experience was in 2017, when 95 percent of our grapes were picked.”

Sangiacomo, 45, said his grandparents began their farming business in 1927. Today the family farms 1,600 acres spread across 14 ranches. They predominately grow chardonnay and pinot noir and sell 99 percent of their grapes, reserving 1 percent for their Sangiacomo Family Wines label, which had its first vintage in 2016.

“We sell to over 50 wineries, and 15 rejected our pinot noir grapes,” Sangiacomo said. “We are aligned with our winery clients to not make wine from any affected grapes from smoke. Quality is of the upmost importance, and we won’t compromise.”

But pinpointing smoke taint is time-consuming, Sangiacomo said. Because so many grapes in Sonoma County have been exposed to smoke, the labs have a backlog of samples to test.

“We have over 10 samples out and we won’t get them back for a month,” Sangiacomo said.

While smoke taint isn’t harmful when ingested, some describe the taste as ranging from wet ashes to medicine.

Even though uncertainty is the only thing Sangiacomo is certain of, he said his family is fully committed to grape growing.

“We are analyzing every facet of our business to see how we can be better prepared for all the unpredictable happenings, with smoke being an urgent focus,” he said. “We will definitely consider buying higher levels of crop insurance. But we are committed to farming through thick and thin. We realize there will be ups and downs, cycles and new weather issues.”

Serres

“I was shocked by the wildfires in mid-August, the lightning storms, that crazy weather,” said Taylor Serres, co-vintner of her family-owned Serres Ranch, based in Sonoma.

Taylor Serres,29, company officer, Serres Ranch is being recognized by the Business Journal's Forty Under 40 “Ones to Watch” program.
Taylor Serres,29, company officer, Serres Ranch is being recognized by the Business Journal's Forty Under 40 “Ones to Watch” program.

The family hadn’t begun harvest before the wildfires and had about 500 tons of grapes on the vines.

Serres, 30, is a fifth-generation farmer. Her family has managed the ranch since the late 1870s. Today the ranch is just under 200 acres, with 130 acres planted to red Bordeaux and Italian varietal grapes.

They began harvest with eight contracts, and one has since been rejected.

“We have crop insurance,” Serres said. “My father (John Serres) never really saw the benefit before, but this year he’s all about it.”

Before the family began growing wine grapes, it founded Serres Corp. in 1929. Serres said the general contracting civil engineering company has provided a cushion when there have been setbacks in growing wine grapes over the years. Another option down the line, she added, would be to diversify with other crops.

“You’re not farming to get rich quick,” Serres said. “Mother Nature always throws you curve balls, but you can always figure it out and you come out alive. No matter how smoky it gets, farming is in our blood.”

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