BERKELEY, Calif. — If anyone doubts the shocking effect climate change has already had on California’s wine industry, there was ample evidence on display at the Donkey & Goat tasting room in this neighborhood of motorcycle repair shops and urban wineries in late March.
At picnic tables in front of a graffiti-painted cinder block wall, visitors sampled Donkey & Goat’s recently released natural wines, a group that even the producer’s most ardent fans wouldn’t recognize.
Instead of the usual bottles that highlight the hyper-specific terroir characteristics of some of the vineyards in Northern California, stretching from Mendocino and Sonoma in the east to El Dorado and the Sierra Foothills, the 2021 Donkey & Goat wines available to taste became either labeled with the generic “California” appellation. or came from vineyards that weren’t part of the usual lineup.
Wine lovers who cherish bottles with a sense of place look for specificity in appellations, hoping that the wines will reflect the qualities of an area or vineyard. That has always been Donkey & Goat’s strong point. In the past, any wine labeled “California” was made from inexpensive grapes and carried a modest price tag.
But this year, some of the most expensive grapes are going to those “California” wines. Crops from multiple appellations were combined in an effort to offset the shortages following the 2021 Northern California wildfires.
The catastrophic fires of the last few growing seasons on the West Coast have turned what was once the relatively routine, joyous, adrenaline-fuelled annual ritual of harvesting and winemaking into a period of fear and anxiety. Growers and winemakers now have to ask themselves if fires will come again and what they can do about it.
Fire damage, along with smoke and ash, is devastating to any vineyard and producer. Those wineries owned by billionaires or big corporations have the resources to withstand reduced harvests, or even a year or two without any wine. But small businesses like Donkey & Goat now face existential threats every year and wonder if they’ll be able to make enough wine to cover the costs.
To survive, West Coast wineries had to innovate, turning grapes that might have been destined for one type of wine into an entirely different one.
Tracey Rogers Brandt, Donkey & Goat’s general manager and winemaker, hopes the unusual wines she had to make in 2021 aren’t humiliated for being different or unexpected. She hopes that what she calls her “climate-driven creative wines” will be recognized as inventive responses to catastrophic events and valued accordingly.
Each year, Isabel’s Cuvée, a single-vineyard rosé made from grenache gris grown on the Gibson Ranch in Mendocino County’s McDowell Valley, is a core wine for Donkey & Goat.
Mrs. Rogers Brandt had enough grapes in 2021 to produce the usual amount of Isabels. But the Caldor Fire devastated vineyards in El Dorado, where Donkey & Goat sources nearly 55 percent of the grapes for its annual red wine production.
Donkey & Goat managed to save about 40 percent of its red grapes, mainly Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. But when smoke and ash settle on red grapes, the grape skins, which give the wine color and texture, must be discarded. Red wine cannot be produced without subjecting the wine to the kind of technological manipulations that Donkey & Goat hate.
In such cases, many wineries would use the grapes to make a simple rosé. Mrs. Rogers Brandt could have made an innocent rosé to sell with Isabel’s Cuvée. But she said that wouldn’t have been aesthetically pleasing and she would have lost money on the wine.
She decided instead to combine the rosé from these grapes with the rosé destined for Isabel’s Cuvée. Feeling that the wine was still missing something, she added some pinot gris from the 2020 vintage, made in the ramato style, where the juice and skins are macerated together, adding texture and color. Federal rules allow up to 15 percent of a blend from a different vintage than the year listed.
The result, called Gris Gris, is delectable – lively, tangy, refreshing and bone-dry, with flavors of fruit and herbs. It contains grapes from McDowell Valley, Anderson Valley and El Dorado, hence the California appellation. Mrs. Rogers Brandt sells the wine for $32 a bottle, roughly equivalent to Isabel’s Cuvée despite the denomination.
“I can’t survive if I have a climate impact and have to call wines ‘California’ and sell them for a song,” she said. “People say, ‘It’s not a designated vineyard, it should be cheaper.’ No, I should charge more because my expenses are so much higher.”
Donkey & Goat, like many small wineries without vineyards of their own, must partner with growers to ensure a steady supply of fruit. This is doubly important for producers such as Mrs. Rogers Brandt, who works primarily with organic and biodynamic vineyards.
This requires forging sympathetic, long-lasting relationships. Ms Rogers Brandt recalled some great advice she received from an early mentor, Éric Texier, the excellent Rhone producer: “Spend time and money finding the right growers. It’s like finding partners for life.”
The idea of buying grapes for better or worse is a challenge in difficult years. In 2008, her first vintage was hit by fires, grapes from vineyards she worked with in Mendocino were spoiled by smoke. She bought them anyway, even though she had to subject the wines to reverse osmosis, a technological process that can reduce the stench. The wines were sold under a different label.
“The 2008 harvest almost killed us,” she said. “But we were able to maintain relationships with growers.”
Faced with fires in both 2020 and 2021, many winemakers have abandoned growers or bought only part of their plots. It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved, but Ms Rogers Brandt said it was crucial to support growers.
“You can’t just buy grapes in the good years,” she said. “That won’t work for growers. To preserve vineyards and agriculture, you have to maintain it.”
Wines like Gris Gris allowed her to continue with the harvest, even if the result deviated from the original vision.
“It allowed me to pick grapes that would have been unused or would not have been picked,” she said. “We can do nice things, but we need to re-evaluate the value.”
Ms. Rogers Brandt faced a slightly different situation with the 2020 fires. That year she harvested grapes that she expected would turn out well. It was only during winemaking that she discovered that they had been affected by smoke. She did what she could, even if the results, she said, left her heartbroken.
“I was so devastated,” she said. “I didn’t know I was going to have the problems I had. It was just reactive – there was no creativity to do anything else, but delicious.”
She swore she wouldn’t be caught off guard again. In early 2021, she made it a point to sample many natural wines, seeking inspiration for what she called Plan B wines should she be faced with fire again.
“I wanted to look forward to the promise of the new vintage and the satisfaction of creating new wines,” she said. “It may not be what I expected, but I wanted to have that freedom to play and feel satisfied at the end instead of feeling so disappointed.”
Her other impromptu 2021s, all with the California appellation, include Cannonball, an unusual blend of carignan and grüner veltliner with dollops of chardonnay, grenache blanc and vermentino from Mendocino, Monterey and El Dorado, bright, fruity and savory, all combined with a thread of tannin, for $36; a light and pleasant pétillant natural made from Monterey grüner veltliner and Anderson Valley chardonnay for $40; and Skinny Dip, for $36, which requires a little explanation.
After making the Isabel’s Cuvée, which went into her Gris Gris, Mrs. Rogers Brandt took the pomace—the remains of pulp, husks, stems, and seeds left over from the winemaking process—and put it in a clay vessel. She then filled it with a grenache noir rosé from El Dorado and let them sit together for 12 days. The result was a dark rosé that was delicious, bright and lively.
“It was so good that I’m going to do it again,” she said. “During the harvest, I thought I would lose my business. I didn’t know if I could afford my people. And I love these wines.”
Not that Donkey & Goat only made blends of different appellations. It made some vineyard red wines from grapes Mrs. Rogers Brandt has managed to get through the community that has developed them over the years, including a bright pinot meunier from the Russian River Valley and an extraordinary, wonderfully spicy wine from a virtually unknown variety, cabernet pfeffer, grown at Siletto Family Vineyards in San Benito County.
The experience of 2021, she said, has given her the confidence to face all the twists and turns that climate change is sure to bring in the future.
“Look, this isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “We all have an existential crisis. We have to find a way to create and find joy in making wine.”