It’s impossible to think of the 2017 harvest without remembering the devastating fires that swept through northern California wine country. Beginning on October 8th and continuing for three weeks, the series of blazes re-shaped the vintage and the land as well as property and most importantly, many people’s lives. They took a terrible toll.
We’ve told the story of the first week Scott and Benoit stayed at Realm to continue processing the fruit and wines that we’d already harvested. When the fires began, two-thirds of our fruit was in the cellar, but one-third was still hanging. Here is the rest of the story.
Benoit: “We ended up picking most of the grapes that were still hanging. Not harvesting them would have been the easy way out. I’d never dealt with fruit that had smoke taint, but I thought there was a possibility for me to learn. My thought process was that if I don’t deal with it, I won’t know what to do when the fires come back. And they will come back. So Mother Nature throws you a curve ball, but you use the situation to better yourself, to face something you’ve never faced and learn something.”
During that week and the ones that followed we learned a lot. It just wasn’t in our DNA to give up. The fruit that was already harvested was fine; we made sure the fermentations were done properly and fortunately we had the power, water and tools we needed to take care of the young wines. With the fruit still hanging, we decided to bring it in. We’d keep it in completely separate lots, and do some experimenting. We looked at what winemakers have done in Australia, where fires are very common. We looked at rinsing the fruit and came up with techniques to gas the grapes and preserve them in storage. We played with lees management and ran countless rounds of analysis. We weren’t in a rush to declassify the wines, so we experimented with dozens of techniques to learn as much as we could. After several months, we came to the conclusion that while the wines from that fruit were way better than they would have been had we not experimented, they weren’t good enough for Realm. We sold some of those wines in bulk; the rest we poured down the drain.
Scott: “The production team did a masterful job trying to make the wine from post-fire lots work but in the end it was clear the quality simply didn’t meet our threshold. So we made a painful yet easy decision to discard all the post-fire wine. Unfortunately, that decision placed a major financial burden on the business – we took a several million dollar loss. Yet our reputation and brand is worth so much more than that. I’m confident that the wines we did put into bottle from the 2017 vintage are among the very best in Napa Valley.”
In 2017, we had no Falstaff, no Farella, no Levensohn, no To Kalon Cabernet Franc and only half of the To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon we’d intended. Moonracer was also down in volume.
Benoit: “Did we lose some time and money? That’s a negative way to think of it. I look at it positively. I know we’re prepared for a similar event. We designed the Whiskey Hotel so we could pick and store fruit for a longer period of time while preserving its integrity. We can control humidity, gas, air quality; we have UV light. Everything we learned in 2017 helped us create a better design and prepare for catastrophe. It was a curve ball from Mother Nature that we transformed to our advantage…to improve our knowledge, push the boundaries, do the research and be more prepared for the next event. The best way to learn is to push yourself in dramatic situations.”