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On Fires & Wine: Musings of a Napa Valley Winemaker

Posted on September 05, 2018

North of most Napa Valley wineries, past St. Helena, and into Howell Mountain, lies Burgess Cellars. For those unfamiliar with Burgess Cellars, it’s a winery in the hillside of Howell Mountain founded in 1972. Winemaker Kelly Woods has created an art form in the field, with extensive experience at Napa Valley wineries and an education in enology. Strong sensory skills and a knack for perfection has driven her passion. We caught up with Woods and asked her to fill us in on Burgess’ fire experience as well as their newest releases. Check out her story and learn more about Burgess Cellars.

On Fires & Wine: Musings of a Napa Valley Winemaker

By Kelly Woods, Winemaker and General Manager of Burgess Cellars

It’s been nearly 9 months since that fateful Sunday night in October 2017 when the fires first erupted.  I was heading home from the winery after doing the evening pump-overs on my fermentations, and something just didn’t feel right.  Like most California natives, there’s a sensation we get that indicates “earthquake weather” or “fire weather”.  And while I know that may sound crazy, that’s exactly what I was feeling that evening.

Wildfires are, for lack of better terminology, normal out here.  We are well versed in defensible space, evacuation plans, emergency supply kits, plans A, B, C, etc.  CalFire’s website and social media posts are part of our daily readings from May through October, which also happens to be the most critical time period for vineyard growth and wine production.  To have a wildfire break out in any of those months is devastating, but even more so during the peak of harvest in September and October.

The winegrape harvest is such an exciting time of year!  The valley is buzzing with the hum of tractors; the energy of the pickers at dawn lugging 40 pound bins of grapes still covered in the early morning dew; winemakers grabbing a quick cup of coffee at the local café and running into each other just long enough to say hi before heading out to walk vineyards.  Tasting rooms are alive with visitors from all over the world, coming to our beautiful valley to see and experience something that the locals may take for granted.  It’s already a very busy and exhilarating time of year for everyone in the industry, we don’t need anything else thrown into the mix!

And then one of the worst wildfires in the history of Napa Valley erupted that warm October night.  I stayed up through the night, with the Atlas Fire burning only a couple of miles from my home, phone lines were still working at that point and NIXLE alerts were pouring in.  That’s when I realized that there wasn’t just one fire burning, but at least 5.  My initial concern was for my coworkers and employees.  At dawn I started to make calls and texts to see that everyone was safe.  My next concern was the winery and harvest.  We still had a job to do; a job that can only be done one time per year, and this was that critical time.  I was still able to access the winery, but the power was out and we made the decision to put harvest on hold until we knew more.

Burgess Cellars was very fortunate in that we were a few miles south of the Tubbs Fire, a few miles north of the Atlas Fire, and a few miles east of the Nuns Fire.  But we were definitely surrounded.  The smoke was heavy those first few days; access throughout the valley was limited; evacuation orders were being given.  But everyone still wanted to work.  So we donned our N95 masks and harvest continued once power was restored.

Most of the articles about the fires and harvest state that approximately 90% of the grapes in Napa Valley had been harvested by that point. I had about half of my grapes still hanging on the vines.  We picked as quickly as we could in order to hopefully mitigate the effect of the smoke in the air on the quality of the grapes.  Not a lot of research has been conducted on the effects of fires and smoke on grapes, mainly because data is only collected during times of fire (2008 in Mendocino, 2015 in Australia’s Adelaide Hills).  There’s conflicting data on when and how the smoke affects the grapes, and when signs of smoke taint may occur in the wines. We were really all just trying to do our best in a time of uncertainty.

I’ve been closely monitoring the wines that I made post-fire, and I’m happy to report that I haven’t detected any smoke taint whatsoever!  In tasting other wines from the 2017 vintage that were produced after the fires, I’ve only encountered a select few that show signs of smokiness attributed to the October fires.  And yet, some of the press and critics are already devaluing the entire 2017 vintage from Napa Valley and Sonoma.  As a winemaker that takes great pride in what I do, I would never bottle and sell a wine that I know is inferior.  And I know most winemakers feel the same way.  Don’t discount the 2017 vintage.  The quality was exceptional, flavors incredible, and yields were up from 2016 15-30% across the board.  Even with the curveballs that we were thrown at us, 2017 is definitely going to be a remarkable vintage!


And we’re excited to try it. We have loved every moment spent at Burgess. If you’re interested in touring Burgess Cellars and other Napa Valley wineries, join our Napa Winery Tour or book a private tour.

Be sure to check out more of our favorite Napa Valley wineries and prepare for your wine tour.

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