Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 39

PHOTO OF STEVE MATTHAISSON BY DAVID DENT

J

ust southeast of Calistoga, Foothill Boulevard becomes St. Helena Highway, taking
you through the busy main street, then
south of town, where Cathy Corison farms
cabernet sauvignon at the Kronos Vineyard
in St. Helena. Planted on an alluvial fan of
Bale gravelly loam on phylloxera-resistant
St. George rootstock in 1971, the nearly
50-year-old vines produce some of the most elegant and
nuanced cabernet in the Napa Valley. Corison's 2017 Kronos and her 2017 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are
both highlighted in this issue, and she is excited about
the wines. "I, too, love the 2017s," she says. "The season
was very challenging-with prolonged, excessive heat as
harvest started in early September. I pick early on early
sites, so I was already scheduling picks when the heat hit
over Labor Day. When I saw the forecast, I sat down and
scheduled nine straight days of picking. It turned into a
scramble in the heat, but we got the grapes off the vine
in great shape."
In fact, for producers looking to harvest at lower potential alcohols, early heat spikes may have saved the vintage
from the fires.
"In warmer seasons, sugar accumulates faster and can
outrun the other components, forcing our picking hand,"
Corison explains. "Our grapes had been in for nearly
three weeks when the fire started on October eighth,"
she recalls. "I so value the red-cherry and blueberry end
of the cabernet-sauvignon flavor spectrum, along with the
purple plum and cassis and blackberry. Picking early, at
lower sugars, is the only way to get all those flavors in
the same glass at the same time. It also keeps the natural
acidity snappy."
The fires of 2020 began on August 17 in the eastern hills
of Napa Valley. At her vineyards in St. Helena, Corison
says the type of smoke and the wind patterns came
into play. "Both 2017 and 2020 experienced significant
heat during the ripening season, though the timing was
different, and of course fires played a role in both, again
with differences in timing. It is simply too early to tell
whether smoke is a problem this year. It is in our favor
that our grapes were only exposed to 'old' smoke, from
relatively distant fires." During the early fire in August
of 2020, she says the benchland in St. Helena was thick
with smoke that didn't have much of a scent, presumably
because there was a low concentration of volatile phenols,
which are considered a culprit in smoke taint.
"So far so good, as everything ticks down to dryness,"
Corison says of her fermenting juice from 2020. "A lesson
learned from 2017 is to not jump to conclusions."

D

own valley, in the Oak Knoll District,
Steve Matthiasson also makes a distinction between "old" and "new"
smoke. In 2017, he was farming the
Red Hen Vineyard, at the base of
Mount Veeder, owned at the time by
the Araujo family. Matthiasson was
making merlot from one block while
Diana Snowden Seysses of Ashes & Diamonds was purchasing fruit for a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon.
While most of the news is about fire, Matthiasson speaks

"California
treats heat
events like the
French treat
rain."
- STEVE MATTHIASSON,
MATTHIASSON WINES

of it more as a symptom of the drought and the heat. He
believes the rains that ended the extended drought in the
early spring of 2017 dictated the future of the fruit-a redfruit character he finds in his 2017s. Later, when the heat
wave hit toward the end of the growing season, the vines
shut down, halting sugar production.
Diana Snowden Seysses witnessed that shutdown as
well, and recalls that the bunch stems had withered, preventing the vines from delivering sugars to the grapes.
She saw it as an opportunity-to take advantage of the
lower sugars, and by extension, lower potential alcohols.
"California treats heat events like the French treat
rain," Matthiasson says. In both cases, those weather
events drive harvest decisions and, for some, the heat in
2017 may have helped save the vintage. I ask Matthiasson
how hot it needs to be for the grapes to stop sugar
production. His reply: "Really frickin' hot."
Matthiasson says that 2020, by contrast, had
completely different spring conditions-it was one of the
driest springs in 50 years. The fruit was concentrated and
was on track for early ripening. When lightning strikes
ignited the fires of the LNU complex (multiple blazes
in Cal Fire's Sonoma Lake Napa Unit), the winds were
blowing to the east, leaving the entire Napa Valley floor
safe from the "fresh" smoke of the fires.
"What we got," Matthiasson says, "was a high haze,
filtering out the sunlight and preventing sugars from
coming up." Once again, his grapes came in with lower
sugars than usual; he says it was some of the best fruit
he'd seen in a long time. He was worried about wind
changes, and kept an eye to the north, the source of
what are typically the more dangerous winds at harvest,
potentially spreading fire and blowing smoke down valley.
He and Snowden Seysses called the pick, and their grapes
were pressed off by the time the Glass Fire started on
September 27, east of St. Helena in Deer Park; the fire
would not be contained fully until October 20.
WINE & SPIRITS

DECEMBER 2020

39



Wine & Spirits - December 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Wine & Spirits - December 2020

Contents
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover1
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover2
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 1
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 2
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Contents
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 4
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 5
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 6
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 7
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 8
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 9
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Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover3
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover4
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