At the peak of Missouri wine season, grapes are being harvested and squeezed for their precious juices as tourists are flocking to this area to enjoy the fall colors and temperatures.
The story is different in northern California wine country where 41 people have died, 6,700 homes have been lost and 11,000 firefighters are still battling 12 wildfires that have swept that region over the past few weeks.
More than 20 wineries have sustained severe damage either to infrastructure or vineyards as fires have scorched nearly a quarter million acres in Mendicino, Napa and Sonoma counties.
Here in the heart of Missouri wine country, the effects out west are already being seen at Mount Pleasant and Blumenhof wineries.
Mount Pleasant President Chuck Dressel said he’s already receiving requests for shipments of their product to the West Coast.
“The cheap stuff will remain cheaper, but anything with any quality will be more expensive,” Dressel said. “Some of the highest end (wines) won’t be available.”
Mount Pleasant in Augusta has been supplying California wineries with bulk and bottled wine for the past two years and they’ve already had inquiries for next year.
Dressel estimates about 90 percent of the California grapes would have already been harvested for this year.
Eric Blumenberg, owner of Blumenhof Winery in Dutzow, noted that just because the grapes are picked, it doesn’t mean they’re safe.
“I’ve heard that the area wineries aren’t able to manage their fermentations due to evacuations,” he explained. “Smoke is filling up wineries in Northern California, and that can cause something called ‘smoke taint.’ ”
Blumenberg added a little bit of smoke is probably not a big deal, but prolonged exposure to smoke can lead to wines that taste like an ashtray.
Even though much of the 2017 harvesting has already been done in California, thousands of acres of vineyard have also been destroyed that will take years to replace.
Even if vineyards are replanted immediately, Dressel and Blumenberg agree it typically takes three or four years to go from planting to the first year of grape harvest and four to seven years to have a salable bottle of wine
“Usually that first harvest is quite small (1-2 tons per acre),” Blumenberg explained. “There’s going to be increased demand for vines, and nurseries may not be able to meet that demand.”
Blumenberg added some vineyards may not be able to replant next year and may not be back on their feet before 2022 or later.
Once the grapes are harvested, a wide array of equipment is then used to extract the juice that will eventually become the wine.
Dressel estimates a 50,000 case winery would require $5 million in equipment.
Local wineries are much smaller and their equipment needs are about $100 per case volume and would be about $1 million to replace.
Blumenberg said he suspects the overall impact on the global wine market will be minimal since the affected area although iconic, is relatively small.
“If there’s a winery you love in Napa or Sonoma that has been hit hard by the fires, pricing could go either way,” he said. “Consumers will have most of the same choices as they had prior to this disaster. It all depends on the place, how much damage was caused, and when they harvested. It’s really hard to say.”
Both men agree whatever effects the wildfires have will be minimal, insurances will kick in and the wineries impacted will rebuild.
In fact, the tourism in that area may even increase with the added curiosity tourists may have about fire damage, how the wineries fared and how they are rebuilding.
It may even spark more of an interest in the local scene, they said, and draw more first time visitors to this area.
It’s an ongoing disaster, they added, and no one knows the extent of the damage or the number of lives impacted for quite some time.
The hearts of local winery employees go out to all those affected, the men said, not just those in the wine industry.
“A lot of attention is being paid to the wine industry due to the location of these fires, but it impacts much more than that. Schools, first responders, families, etc.,” Blumenberg said. “It’s truly unimaginable to me what the people affected by this are going through.”