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Wine grapes sour in 2020 Sonoma County crop report

Lowest county agriculture revenue since 2011, with grapes being the biggest driver of the decline.|

While the agriculture community saw a down year coming in 2020, the total loss in revenue was more pronounced than expected.

Sonoma County released its 2020 crop report, a synopsis of the past year’s agricultural production, which showed the lowest gross production value of agriculture since 2011. Grapes are the primary driver of the decrease, according to Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith.

Smith worked on the crop report for 10 years before becoming a commissioner, and he’s never seen a year with a drop so dramatic.

“It’s not unexpected given the last couple of years we’ve had, with respect to weather, the pandemic, fires ...” Smith said.

Grapes account for more than half the agricultural value of Sonoma County, but significant drops in both the production (35.5% decrease) and the value of grapes (46% decrease) in 2020 caused a meaningful disruption in revenue. Sonoma County in 2019 had a total agriculture revenue just south of $1 billion, but that revenue decreased to $680 million in 2020 — a 29% decline.

Smith said the poor haul for 2020 is a product of the pandemic, a massive drop in value for grapes and a meager harvest — particularly from grapes.

And on top of all that: Fires.

Ned Hill, the owner of La Prenda Vineyards Management, said smoke from the fires tainted much of the grapes he oversees just as they were becoming ripe. Lightning storms in August ignited fires that spread smoke up and down the Valley.

“When the the lightning storm came through, we were just starting to pick grapes at that point for rosé,” Hill said. “Harvest was knocking on the door, but it hadn't quite started yet.”

Grape farmers in Sonoma County harvest between August and November, depending on the vineyard’s location and varietal. But excessive heat in late summer, a lack of rain throughout the year and smoke from fires caused growers to harvest their vines early in 2020, Smith said.

“For us personally, we picked at least 75% of our white grapes in 2020,” Hill said. “Of our red grapes, maybe we picked 20% ... it depends on who wanted to take the risk on it. Because you've got the possibility of something that's going to be picked and fermented, and then not be any good.”

The fire season in 2020 was not as bad as the one in 2017, Smith said, but it taxed farmers in a new way. The 2017 October wildfires ignited when about 70% of the grape crop had already been harvested, Smith said, so there was less impact to overall revenue. Smoke from the Glass fire of the LNU Complex fire “inundated” grapes with smoke, Smith said.

“Those two fires here in the county plus the smoke from fires burning in other parts of the state really put a lot of pressure on the wine grape industry,” Smith said.

According to the University of California Davis’s Viticulture and Enology department, particles from smoke can be absorbed into the berry and the leaves of a grapevine.

“Early research indicated that grapes are the most susceptible to smoke taint from after veraison (color change for red grapes) to harvest,” UC Davis says in a post titled “Wildfire Impact on CA Grapes and Wine.” “When this happens these compounds do become volatile, contributing to aroma and thus potential off flavors.”

Hill described smoke-tainted wine as “drinking an ashtray.”

The slow moving disaster of climate change — making California more arid and heat waves more intense — also had a profound effect. Other environmental factors came into play for winemakers as a result, Smith said.

“Those that had reliable sources of groundwater fared far better than those who did not, ” Smith said, “and those that relied on the surface water in the form of reservoirs and irrigation ponds would have been significantly challenged by the drought.”

The financial impact of smoke taint to grape farmers was partially covered by crop insurance, which Hill didn’t have until 2000. In the two decades since, nearly all the vineyards he knows have crop insurance as protection against increasingly more difficult growing seasons.

The insurance is through the federal government to help farmers survive bad harvests. But if bad harvests stack up over multiple years, that can have a trickle-down effect on business. Barrel producers, bottle makers and even cork harvesters are all impacted by diminished harvests of grapes, Hill said.

Smith emphasized that the report is of 2020, and only shows events that have happened, not those that will come. Due to the small yield seen in this year’s grape harvest, the forecast is not optimistic for 2021 either.

“I would expect production of agriculture to be a lot lower for the 2021 crop season than the 2020 crop season,” Smith said. “Nobody was insulated from the effects of the pandemic or from drought.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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