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Karen MacNeil's thoughts on Napa Valley's 2020 vintage

The 2020 vintage will go down in history as a vintage no Napa winemaker will ever forget.

As the growing season began, the Covid pandemic had just begun to sweep through the United States. In the Napa Valley, working safely became the order of the day. Many public events were cancelled and tasting rooms and restaurants closed.

But bare bones production teams continued to work in the vineyards and the cellars—under strict safety practices. Napa’s winemakers felt they had a promising vintage on their hands and wanted to bring it to market for wine drinkers to enjoy – even if only at home.

The weather started out cool and dry—a good sign. But then, two wildfires—ignited. The first in late August; the second in late September. While some in the valley had to evacuate, winemaking teams stayed in their wineries.

It became immediately clear that the 2020 vintage would defy generalization. Napa Valley, while small, is a very diverse wine region. Depending on altitude, location, topography of the vineyard, wind direction, and grape type and variety, some grapes were affected by fire and/or smoke. Others were completely unaffected.

“We were lucky,” said Rory Williams, viticultural consultant to Frog’s Leap winery. “94 Percent of our grapes were already picked by the time the second fire struck. I know it’s weird to say but the wines are showing great balance and freshness.”

On the other side of the valley from Frog’s Leap, the Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery Cabernet grapes were also in. “We finished picking our estate vineyard on the 26th of September and our winemaking team was thus able to craft wonderful wines from this very challenging vintage, said Beth Novak. “We are extremely proud of what we have been able to achieve.”

Andy Erickson, co-owner of FAVIA in the Coombsville appellation and a consultant to top wineries in numerous diverse appellations, acknowledged that winemakers had to make tough choices in 2020 but flatly stated, “I’m bullish on the 2020s.”

Tough choices indeed. For as many good stories as are out there, there are also sad ones. “The 2020 vintage left a lot of mental and emotional scars on many of us winemakers and vintners, so it is a little difficult to talk about,” said Phillip Corallo-Titus, winemaker of Chappellet Vineyard. “With the fires starting in August, we knew we were in for a challenge from the start. But for us, once the second fire started in Septemeber, we shut down the harvest.”

In the end, of course, the most valuable asset a winery has is its reputation. So while some Napa wineries made no 2020 wine, others whose grapes were in, or who were not in the path of fire or smoke, made wines they say will be excellent.

For the valley as a whole, the 2020 harvest will be one of the smallest on record—a reminder that nature, above all, calls the shots.

And precisely because there won’t be a lot of 2020 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon around in years to come, collectors are already snapping up the few beautiful wines that were made.