2020 vintage report – Oregon

Alex Sokol of Sokol Blosser in Willamette Valley, Oregon by Andrea Johnson

Alex Sokol Blosser, pictured above by Andrea Johnson and star of this sustainability video, was stumped when trying to find words to describe the 2020 vintage in the Willamette Valley, so he turned to opera instead.

Dear ‘Those who are curious to know how we fared in a vintage during a pandemic, social unrest, fires and smoke, and why not throw in a labour shortage while we’re at it?’,

I have read many good write-ups about the vintage from many of my peers and I applaud their poetic licence in telling the tale that is the 2020 vintage. To add further to this pile, and with much euphoria from my team winning the World Series, I feel the vintage lends itself to some good ol’ fashioned Italian opera. You know, the kind I could never sit through but enjoyed the breaks where I could drink some wine and learn what the hell was going on from my wife. While I never really understood what was happening in any of these operas, what I did understand was that there was A LOT of emotion and drama. Well, there was a lot of emotion during this harvest and more drama than you can shake a stick at. With this in mind I offer you ‘Harvest 2020 in Revue’ from various Italian arias.

Let’s start with a fun one, ‘Largo al factotum’ from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

Hit the playback!!

I’m the winemaker at Sokol Blosser, make way! La la la la la la la LA! (Go, Dodgers!)
Quick now to business, the grapes are ripe, time to pick. La la la la la la LA!
Oh, ‘tis a charmed life that of a winemaker. La la la la la la LA!
Ah, bravo!

Stop! Wait, this is not going to work, Rossini. 2020 has been a year of epic challenges and not one for triumphant boasting. The cold, wet spring made for very poor fruit development during bloom and thus gave us the smallest crop since 1998/99. We were expecting around 750 tons for this harvest and got in 650 tons. Last year we did almost 1,000 tons and 2019 was a more normal-sized harvest. The crop was exceptionally light, but the quality was really good. Loose clusters with big and small berries: ‘hens and chicks’, as we call them. Dark colour, rich and intense flavours coming from such a light crop. The crop size does not bode well for our production costs because we spend the same amount to farm an acre whether we get 1.5 tons an acre as we did this year or 3 tons an acre as we did in 2018.

I think maybe we should downshift to Puccini for something a little more stoic. Here is ‘Vissi d’Arte’ from Tosca.

Hit the playback!!

I lived for the grapes, I lived for Pinot Noir,
I never did make a Cabernet Sauvignon!
With a secret hand,
Mother nature has lain many misfortunes as I knew of in 2020!

Always with true faith
I wear a N95 mask every day.
Always with true faith
I sometimes wore two masks! (one for COVID and one for smoke)

In the hour of grief
Why, why, o Lord,
Why do you reward me thus?

I limited my picking crews to lower their COVID-19 risk,
And only had domestic harvest interns!
In the hour of grief
Why, why, o Lord,
Why do you reward me thus?

Now that matches the 2020 vibe a little more. The pandemic provided overarching stress throughout the vintage and harvest. We typically have a multi-cultural presence with our harvest interns, but the pandemic shut our borders. Last year we had South Africans and Mexicans, but this year only Americans. This all-American crew did a stellar job, and I am grateful to Charlotte, Kyle, Kaye and Laura who graced our winery this harvest and not only worked hard but gave refreshing life and laughter to our cellar. We started harvest with a COVID-19 test (all of us were clear) and the next day brought in grapes on 3 September. We had a good week of bringing in most of our grapes for sparkling wine and all our Pinot Noir for our rosé when the winds changed, and the fires started. Might be time for the aria ‘Sempre Libera’ from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi (Joe Green).

Hit the playback!!

It’s madness! It’s empty delirium!!
A poor lonely winemaker
abandoned in this smoky desert
they call harvest!
What can I hope?
What should I do?
Drink a beer?
Dive into the vortex of smoke research
And read everything and drown there!
Drink more beer!

Stressed and tired I must continue
From ferment to ferment,
Skimming the surface
Of harvest’s Pinot Noir path.
As each day dawns (or is it night because the smoke makes it so dark)
As each day dies,
Stressed, I smell each ferment and
Try to be optimistic.

Alex Sokol Blosser of Willamette Valley by Carolyn Wells-Kramer
Alex Sokol Blosser by Carolyn Wells-Kramer

As I am sure you know, we had our first real smoke event here in the Willamette Valley for the harvest of 2020. For around seven days, we were in a thick fog of smoke at Sokol Blosser. The smoke event ended in an amazing fury of thunder and lightning plus an inch of rain on the night of 17 September. It was such a balm to hear the rain fall on my roof at midnight, and then hear the rumble of thunder and see the flashes of lightning! Nothing happened with a whimper in 2020, I tell you.

All our other grapes were still on the vine when the smoke arrived. Would our wines become affected by smoke taint? What is it and how in the hell does it all work? Isn’t this something that only affects California and Australia? The Willamette Valley is not supposed to burn! Will this ruin the vintage or will we all dodge the smoke-effect bullet? Maybe a clown is better able to describe this in the aria ‘Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio’ in Pagliacci.

Hit the playback!!

While taken by fire and smoke
I no longer know what to say or what to do!
Yet … it is necessary … to keep making Pinot Noir!
Bah, will the smoke ruin my wine?
You are a winemaker!

Call your friends, read the research.
People are thirsty.
And if the smoke effect markers are too high?
Make more rosé, winemaker, and everyone will applaud!
Turn the campfire taste into fruit flavours;
in a grimace fine with carbon to strip the smoke …

Laugh, winemaker, as the cellar magic
heals the poisons in the wine!

Of all the tons we processed this harvest (650 tons) only a small portion of the wine showed any smoke flavours during fermentation and in the resulting wine. All our estate fruit produced wine that we are excited about. The ferments were clean and so seemed the wines. Does this mean we dodged a bullet? Come on! This is 2020. It cannot be that easy.

I feel for all my fellow winemakers in the valley who made the best decisions they could in the moment. I applaud them all and know how stressful it was for me. We were all in our own operetta this harvest with drama at every turn. In fact at one point, owing to a lack of pickers, I was out in the vineyard helping to pick grapes. So were my wife, kids, brother, sister, mom, dad, and 15 other teammates from our winery and tasting room. We brought in the harvest this year, and we are tied to its fate.

Time will tell how good the vintage will be or whether smoke effect will be a thing or not. Rest assured, when we get to the point of finishing the wine, we will put into bottle only what we are confident will be a compelling wine from our estate vineyards in the Dundee Hills.

Hell, next year our winery and vineyard celebrate our 50th anniversary, so we are going to make sure whatever we bottle from the 2020 vintage we are proud to slap the Sokol Blosser label on it.

Ah, bravo Figaro! Bravo, bravissimo!