For Santa Cruz Mountain winemakers, the 2020 vintage is all about resiliency

Bradley Brown of Big Basin Vineyards
Bradley Brown of Big Basin Vineyards surveys damage from the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
(Sara Gobets/Lookout Santa Cruz)

From COVID-19 restrictions to prolonged heat to wildfires to smoke taint, it’s a good thing those who make up the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA are a hearty bunch. We talked to a handful about how they’re making the best of a bad situation.

The heroics of Ryan Beauregard and his fellow Bonny Doon fire warriors became the stuff of legend when the CZU Lightning Complex fire blazed through the Santa Cruz Mountains in August. He and a hearty crew of locals dug in to help save numerous properties, including his own Beauregard Vineyards.

The winemaker mustered more bravado a month later when he decided to test some of his vineyard’s grapes that had endured the storm of smoke and ash — sadly a less fruitful rescue mission.

“That (fermentation) definitely tasted like an ashtray,” Beauregard said of the small batch of Cabernet Franc that will go down the drain rather than into bottles.

Ryan Beauregard
(Sara Gobets/For Lookout Santa Cruz)

That (fermentation) definitely tasted like an ashtray.

— Ryan Beauregard

It’s been a volatile year, and the Santa Cruz wine scene has not been immune to 2020’s wrath; winery tasting rooms were already facing COVID-19 restrictions when a summer heat wave put many vineyards in peril.

Then came historic wildfires and smoke, each with serious and destructive implications for the sensitive chemistry of wine grapes.

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Still, there are early signs the 2020 vintage from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area) will not be a complete bust. The winemakers of the region — self described “mountain people” — are determined to make the best of a bad situation.

“The public perception is that the 2020 vintage is all tainted — that’s not the case at all,” said John Benedetti of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines. “The vintage is not a total write-off.”

How smoke affects grapes

A persistent cloud of smoke from the fires surrounding Santa Cruz County hung over the area for weeks.

Wine grapes can absorb certain compounds in smoke, called volatile phenols, and become “smoke tainted.” Wine made from smoke-tainted grapes will unavoidably present a permeating smoky character, rendering it essentially undrinkable.

The likelihood of smoke taint in grapes is highly variable, dependent on factors like the freshness of the smoke and the variety of the grape itself. And because volatile phenols are released during fermentation, smoke taint is not typically detectable in grapes while they remain on the vine.

Concerned growers today have the option of sending grape or wine samples in for testing, but huge backlogs at regional labs — dealing with demand from wineries all over the state — left many Santa Cruz Mountains growers in limbo, according to Benedetti.

John Benedetti of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines is making the most of a bad year.

Testing eventually revealed grapes from Split Rail — Sante Arcangeli’s signature Pinot Noir vineyard — were among those lost to smoke taint. The vineyard had already been partially damaged by twin heat spikes just before the smoke set in, Benedetti said.

“It’s devastating,” he said of the loss. “We were initially looking at a really cool growing season, and then we got hit with all that heat and smoke all at once.”

After careful assessment, Benedetti will crush just 35 tons of grapes this year — down from his typical 80. (That tonnage includes grapes Benedetti processes for other producers in the region, he said. They, too, are feeling the effect of the smoke on their crop.)

Much of the region’s pinot noir grapes were caught in the crossfires of the smoke — more so than chardonnay, Santa Cruz’s premiere white wine grape. Red varieties are typically harvested later than whites, like chardonnay, according to Judy Schultze, co-owner of Windy Oaks Estate.

Windy Oaks, in Corralitos, saw most of its crop escape the haze unscathed. Winemakers did lose an estimated 10 percent of their pinot noir during the Labor Day heat wave that struck a few weeks after the fires, according to Schultze, who said ultimately she felt as though Windy Oaks had “dodged the bullet.”

In the process of dodging that bullet, Brandon Armitage actually absorbed a different kind of challenge: more fruit than he was ready to deal with. He was able to avoid the heat waves losses by irrigating heavily beforehand, didn’t see the see same smoke issues with his Pinot Noir as Benedetti did and even took on more grapes from others.

“Harvest wasn’t easy this year,” said the Oregon native who studied viticulture in New Zealand and has Armitage Tasting Room in Aptos Village. “But we ended up tripling our production.”

An ‘unrecoverable’ crop

Bradley Brown, owner and winemaker at Big Basin Vineyards, lost his home, portions of his vineyards and a slew of other structures and infrastructure. His winery was saved, but the future viability of his burnt vines — including all of his estate pinot noir crop — remains unknown.

“The entire crop was tainted to the point where it’s unusable — it’s not recoverable,” Brown said.

Smoke-tainted wine at Big Basin Vineyards.
(Sara Gobets/For Lookout Santa Cruz)

Brown will make about two-thirds his typical production this year; he’ll source from other vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation as well as in the Gablian Mountains, two hours south.

That Brown’s winery survived lightens Big Basin’s burden considerably. Inside wasn’t just Brown’s winemaking facility, but 1,800 cases — almost 22,000 bottles — of Big Basin’s 2019 vintage, bottled just days before the fires began.

“When we didn’t know if the winery had survived, it was like, wow — we could have lost (a huge part of) the 2019 vintage,” Brown said. He did not learn that the winery had been left standing for “at least five days” after fire reached the property.

Beauregard, in Bonny Doon, will not use his estate fruit this year either, and felt lucky to secure some wine grapes from a family friend, a grower on the Sonoma Coast. That will put Beauregard Vineyards at less than half its typical annual production, he said.

The revenue hit

Boutique wineries — like the majority of producers in the Santa Cruz Mountains — were projected to lose almost half their revenue as a result of COVID-19, according to one industry report.

Burnt vines remain at Big Basin Vineyards.
(Sara Gobets/For Lookout Santa Cruz)

Big Basin Vineyards lost 20 percent just in closing its tasting room, according to Brown, and has lost more business as restaurant accounts have tapered off.

In some cases, the devastation has forced innovation. Sante Arcangeli’s Benedetti will try his hand at making white Pinot Noir — a style popular with a smattering of Oregon wineries — for the first time, using pinot noir grapes in which the red skins have been removed. The process is labor intensive, according to Benedetti, but in his case, it’s also practical; less “skin contact” for grapes during the winemaking process is thought to lower risk of smoke taint.

“I’ve done this for 13 years now, and I’m having something totally new thrown at me last second. It’s not a bummer,” Benedetti added. “I love that it keeps (things) interesting.”

Not only does Benedetti remain optimistic about the region’s resiliency, he thinks there may even be some drinkable wine to emerge from 2020.

“There’s something here,” he said. “It’s not going to be much, but there will be quality (wines) to be had.”