Sunday, August 30, 2020

Guest post: Don't write off the 2020 vintage, says Sonoma vintner Jake Bilbro

Jake Bilbro, author of this guest post and owner of Limerick Lane
I got a call last week from Limerick Lane winery owner Jake Bilbro, who is concerned that media coverage (including mine) about smoke is going to unfairly taint the reputation of the 2020 vintage. I offered Jake an opportunity to write a guest post. These are his words, lightly edited.

"2020 has been an unparalleled year in regards to challenges. We can relegate that to wine, the greater business world outside of wine, civil rights issues, Covid-19 pandemic, California wildfires, or just life in general.

In this environment there is, in my opinion, a stress level that doesn't seem to go away. Fuses slowly and subtly shorten and our communal irrational behavior intensifies. Some could argue that it evolves to the situation but I would say it augments because the evolution in question isn't a move in a positive direction. 

We jump to conclusions, our responses are heightened, things seem scarier. It is a natural reaction to accumulated prolonged stress.

Over the last couple of weeks, the unbelievable has happened... another fire and more crazy weather has hit our state. I have no interest in discussing the causes of this fire at the moment. My concern is how we react to it as a community. 

When I use the term "community," I'm referring to growers, producers, distributors, retailers, reporters and consumers. Why do I refer to this larger community? Because we all have a common underlying denominator, which is our love for wine.

I see a very real and important distinction between the aforementioned wine community and the wine industry.

The wine industry has not had an easy go of it as of late. Covid-19 has obliterated our restaurant partners across the country. Our tasting rooms have been closed or severely compromised. Labor has been an ongoing issue. As the industry is struggling to financially and emotionally react to the curve balls thrown our way, our state catches fire and smoke rises from the flames.

Not good. No bones about it. Not good.

Some quick facts about this fire. 

* In Sonoma County this fire has burned 0.5% of the county. (I'm not educated enough about the numbers in Napa or any other region so I won't purport to know but my heart goes out to everyone across California and my references to industry and community encompass other regions.)

* While we tragically have again lost homes, the vast majority of burned area was wildland forest. The ensuing smoke is definitely not hanging as low as was the case in 2017, potentially due to the fact that so many fewer homes, roofs, buildings, cars, etc. burned this year.

* Sonoma County is a vast region filled with valleys, coastal ranges, inland benchlands and mountain ranges. It's home to many different varieties of grapes. These grapes ripen at different levels based on all of the above factors. 

In short, there are a myriad of factors at play, which is why Sonoma County is home to so many high quality wines.

Given the environment of accumulated stress from prior fires among everything else, reactions are certainly even more heightened from our greater community as well as our industry.

Now the issue on everyone's mind: Smoke taint.

Consumers are wondering if the 2020 vintage will be worth investing in. Distributors are wondering the same. Producers and growers whose backs are already somewhat against the wall are very keen on this issue.

And guess what?

Nobody knows yet.

Labs are testing samples from all over the county and beyond and we'll all have very real concrete information soon.

Unquestionably, smoke taint is a very serious concern and going to be an issue in some areas of the county and the state this year, but not across the entire county or across every vineyard equally. 

Let's go back to the scenario of accumulated stress. Everyone is on edge for reasons personal and communal. Everything feels amplified.

My plea is that we all recognize the cloud called 2020 that we are living under and we all take a breath and slow down just a bit.

Growers' livelihoods are on the line right now. Wineries large and small have employees and families depending on their ability to stay in business. To prematurely make any kind of assumption or claim regarding smoke now is completely reckless and entirely unfair. Due to stress load, people are reacting more quickly than ever before.

My conversation with you, along with every other reporter, critic, blogger, producer, and distributor that I know, in essence is please, please, please look at the stress level in our world at large and our industry in particular and recognize how impactful our words as well as the pictures we post are right now. especially those among us in our community who are influencers, whether we be producers, growers, or reporters.

There are a lot of people in our community and industry whose future can be seriously affected by words and images and how the greater community reacts to what they see and read.

Now I'm not asking anyone to lie or shy away from truths. Smoke taint is a real issue right now. But until we know how widespread this issue may be, for the sake of maybe even just the single grower whose grapes that he/she has invested a year's worth of real dollars into and are wholly unaffected by smoke and going to make the excellent wine we all love from Sonoma County, PLEASE be extraordinarily aware of your words.

As a community and as an industry both based on our love for wine as well as our dependence on the income wine generates, we all owe this to each other: Now more than ever before."

--- Guest post written by Jake Bilbro, owner, Limerick Lane, Healdsburg


Alexandra O'Gorman said...

Thank you Jake (and W. Blake Gray) for sharing this important message.

Francly Speaking said...

Thank you Jake, for lack of a better thought, that was a breath of fresh air!

Unknown said...

Thank you Jake and Blake for your thoughtful and well written posts.

From Howell Mountain with regards,

Luke Russ

Williq said...

Jake, very well written and informative. Hope all the Bilbro Family is safe and healthy.
Jim Carriger Minnesota

daPramuk said...

Well put,Jake- nice to read the wise words and realistic perspective of a veteran farmer.

Yes, in a time of chaos and with so much at stake, it's vital that we keep our heads and think straight.

Wishing you and the family a safe and successful 2020 harvest!

Dave Pramuk

Meghan Delzell said...

Jake, Thank you for your generous words and perspective to slow down the anxious energy in our community!

And Blake, thank you for listening and providing a platform for dialogue.