Looking at the 2020 Vintage

January 2023

As we approach the release of our 2020 vintage red wines, we want to take a look back on our decisions leading up to harvest and our efforts to produce wine from this difficult vintage.

2020 was a shaping up to be a beautiful vintage. Temperatures were moderate throughout the growing season with moderate yields in most all vineyards. And then temperatures climbed above average in early August with the fog failing to make it inland overnight. This resulted in extremely dry conditions and warmer nights at our estate vineyard. The Corralitos vineyards including Alfaro stayed a bit cooler with some fog influence. However, these dry conditions were followed by one of the most extreme lightening storm events we have ever witnessed over two consecutive nights due to the remnants of a tropical storm that moved North into our area. This gave rise to the CZU Lightening Complex Fire which devastated much of the Santa Cruz Mountains including much of our property. Our Estate crop was wiped out by the heavy smoke and fires burning through the vineyard, however, vineyards in the Corralitos area were impacted far less as they were further from the fires. Smoke taint in grapes is a product of the following factors: Time from ignition, so the closer to the fire, the more impact; density of smoke, so the size and proximity of the fire along with wind direction impacts this; duration, the longer the smoke contact, the more significant the impact; and timing relative to harvest with riper skins and higher sugar levels leading to the absorption and binding of smoke taint chemicals in the grapes.

The science surrounding smoke taint in grapes in murky at best. We do know that it is very difficult to ascertain the potential impact at harvest time. The smoke taint compounds bind to sugars in the grapes and only when you ferment the grapes can you get an idea of how much there is and the potential to be detected in the finished wine. We would harvest small batches of grapes and then ferment them for a few days before sending the juice off to a lab for analysis and also do a sensory analysis. The numbers we got back indicated that we were at or below the threshold for smoke to become apparent in a finished wine, so we proceeded with our harvest in the Corralitos and Gabilan Mountain vineyards.

It is important to note that the fermentation of red grapes with the skins extracts more of these smoke taint compounds. White grapes are immediately pressed following harvest, so the juice does not remain in contact with the skins and does not extract smoke taint compounds. Thus, red wines are at far great risk of smoke taint than white wines. It is also important to consider that the ability for different people to detect smoke taint varies widely, so while one in ten people might detect it, the other nine just see a beautiful wine. The other really difficult factor with smoke taint is that after the wines are made and aging in barrel, or bottle, the smoke taint compounds can become “unbound” over what is estimated to be approximately the first two years post harvest. So, a wine we bottle at 11 months post harvest could we absolutely beautiful with no detectable smoke taint, and then after 3-6 months in bottle, it could suddenly start showing discernible smoke taint effects. When smoke taint is at or near the threshold to be discernible, a major part of whether or not it is noticeable is the expressiveness and concentration of the wine. When a wine is bottle shocked and not showing the fruit and beauty of the wine, it is possible the smoke taint lurking below the surface might become discernible. Then, as the wine ages and blossoms in its expressiveness, it overwhelms and masks any smoke taint compounds that might be present. Some wineries have been known to bottle smoke affected wines at 11 months, then ship them into market only to find that suddenly the smoke taint rises above threshold.

We have been very careful at Big Basin to give all of our 2020 wines time to reveal any smoke impacts, and to recover from bottle shock so that we can accurately determine whether the finished wine will be expressive of the vineyard, or be adversely affected by smoke taint compounds. When we bottled the 2020 Alfaro and Lester Family Vineyard Pinot Noirs, they were absolutely beautiful and showed no detectable smoke. Then after bottling when the fruit was closed down and the wines not as expressive, our winemaking team was able to pick up some hints of smoke influence. We decided to give these wines time, both to see if any further ‘unbinding’ of smoke compounds occurred, and to allow them to recover from bottle shock. Blake and I were pleasantly surprised when we tasted the 2020 Alfaro Family Vineyard Pinot Noir in preparation for the January 2023 release. Blake can detect the slightest smoke taint impact when no one else can, and he was very pleased to find that it no longer appeared to be noticeable and that the beauty of the fruit and nose of the wine was what emerged above all else. We are reasonably confident that we are past the point where smoke taint would rear its ugly head. That said, we are going to offer the 2020 vintage Corralitos Pinots at a reduced price which we think makes them a bargain.

It is important to note that the white wines we produced in 2020 do not show any signs of smoke taint for the reasons described above. We have already released the 2020 Howard Family Chardonnay and it is beautiful. We are now releasing the 2020 Coastview Vineyard Chardonnay and it too is gorgeous. Coming down the pipe are the Brokentop Ranch Viognier and the Wirz Vineyard Riesling.

One vineyard we had more difficulty with was Coastview Vineyard high up in the Gabilan Mountains. While there were no wildfires in the Gabilan Mountains, there was a large fire across the Salinas Valley in the mountains which caused major smoke impacts in Carmel Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands. The impact was certainly far less across the valley at Coastview which is also located at 2200 feet above the valley. Early indications were that smoke might be detectable in a finished wine, but it was going to be close to threshold. When it came time to bottle our 2020 Pinot Noirs at about 18 months, Blake felt the Coastview Pinot was above threshold, so we didn’t bottle it. Soon after this while we were preparing to bottle Coastview Altitude 2292, Coastview Terraces Syrah, Gabilan Mountains GSM and Coastview Grenache, smoke taint emerged as a discernible component in the wines. We immediately started researching any of the science related to reducing or removing smoke taint from a finished wine. We finally settled on a method we felt worked in bench trials and treated all of these wines prior to bottling. Since this is not something we would normally do, and we could not say that these wines are 100% what we want them to be, we chose to bottle them not as the single vineyard wines we normally would, but instead bottled them as “Central Coast” wines. We hope to release these wines in the future once we are able to fully assess their status, and assuming the beauty is the main show, we will release them at reduced prices which represent a deal to be had.

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