Three years have passed since devastating wildfires in Northern California turned the skies a haunting orange color and seemed to prevent the sun from rising on one nightmarish day in August. Smoke from that major 2020 wildfire and another one in September choked the skies above San Francisco and drifted ominously over certain sections of high-end wine-growing districts in Napa, Sonoma and other counties.
Now that these wines are available to buy and drink, it is time to ask what effects the smoke ultimately had on the quality of the 2020 vintage—especially the reds. Are many wines showing smoky, ashy aromas and flavors? Should consumers be aware of any health risks from wines made in wildfire years?
The answers, based on Wine Enthusiast reviews and extensive interviews with winemakers, grape growers and California’s leading academic advisor on the subject, are reassuring for wine drinkers.
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Available Bottles Rarely Show Smoke
The wildfires did have a major, disruptive economic and health impact on people who live and work in the wine regions. Several firefighters and residents died and thousands of structures were destroyed, including winery facilities. A significant portion of grapes and wine made from the vintage exhibited smoke effects during the harvest and fermentation period. However, surprisingly little of this shows up in the 2020 products that were eventually bottled and sold.
White wines were generally not problematic since many of them were harvested before the fires, and whites are not fermented in contact with grape skins, which are what absorb smoke from the air. (Reds, which are fermented with their skins, are a different story.)
Our blind tastings to date of 97 Napa- and Sonoma-grown Cabernet Sauvignons submitted for review turned up no bottles with the blatant ashtray smell and doused campfire aftertaste that can make smoke-tainted wines undrinkable. This is largely because winemakers identified the smoke-affected grapes and newly fermented wines and chose not to put them on the market unless they could be corrected by processing.
No known health risks are lurking in the 2020 wines either, according to Anita Oberholster, extension professor of enology at the University of California, Davis. She explains that volatile phenols, the compounds in smoke that affect a wine’s taste, are not toxic.
The 2020 Vintage Is a Small One
These are pertinent issues now because the 2020 vintage of Napa Valley and Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon is rolling out winery by winery in late 2023. The main news is that there are much fewer offerings than usual from some leading wineries.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 gets a score of 88 on the Wine Enthusiast Vintage Chart, the first time since 2011 that the vintage rating dipped below 90. “Very good” is the qualitative term for an 88 rating. Despite the many 90-plus-point wines produced, hundreds of the usual high-scoring bottlings were missing.
Winemakers found the vintage extremely challenging in certain vineyard districts, and wine marketers didn’t want to risk the damage to their brand images that negative media and trade judgments might cause if smoky wines got into circulation.
Russell Bevan, who makes wine for his own Bevan Cellars in Napa Valley and consults for several other wineries including Taub Family, says he and his clients bottled only 31 out of 230 wines from 2020, and most of the 31 were whites. The Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley is focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and bottled only three of its usual nine offerings from 2020.
Groth Vineyards & Winery president and CEO Suzanne Groth explains her team bottled 11,000 cases of Oakville AVA Cabernet in 2020 instead of the average 20,000 and bottled no reserve that year, instead shunting reserve block grapes harvested before the Glass Fire into a 2,000-case lot of their proprietary red Oakcross.
“This was the heartbreak vintage,” Groth reveals. “My office looks right out on one of the reserve blocks, and when we decided not to pick them, I had to sit there and watch them rot for weeks.” She says 100 tons of their Cabernet grapes were lost. It’s not a small loss, since Oakville AVA Cabernet grapes can be worth $15,000 a ton or more.
No comprehensive data has surfaced on the tons of grapes or gallons of wine lost or diverted because of smoke in 2020. The California Association of Winegrape Growers estimates the statewide loss of wine grapes was between 165,000 tons and 325,000 tons. The state’s official Grape Crush Report states that the 2020 vintage for red wines was a light one in general, down 16% from 2019 due to drought and other factors. But the number of tons of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon plunged by 33% from 2019 and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon plummeted by 32%. Sonoma County Pinot Noir tonnage was off by 38%.
Looking on the Bright Side
It’s worth pointing out that 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon is still the current vintage on sale for many brands from Napa and Sonoma. That year yielded consistently high-quality, balanced and elegant wines that consumers can still purchase.
But despite reduced supply due to smoke, there was plenty of good news about 2020. The vintage shaped up nicely before the first fire due to favorable weather, so early harvests were not affected. Many areas ultimately dodged smoke effects from the second fire, too. The LNU Lightning Complex fires began August 15, 2020, and affected far-flung parts of five counties. The Glass Fire ignited on September 27 and burned intensely in and near many Napa and Sonoma vineyards.
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Vineyards that were not blanketed by smoke downwind from the LNU fires and that were harvested before the Glass Fire dodged two bullets. Owner-winemaker Cathy Corison’s vineyards were among them. Her grapes in the St. Helena AVA were smoke-free for the harvest, she says, upwind from the first set of fires and picked before the Glass Fire ignited. Corison typically harvests earlier than some of her peers, preferring a medium-bodied style for Corison Cabernet. Her Sunbasket Vineyard 2020 earned 97 points for its elegance and balance.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District bottled four impressive 2020 Cabernet Sauvignons including the silky, memorable Cask 23, one of the highest-rated California 2020s by Wine Enthusiast—so far the highest Wine Enthusiast score for any Napa 2020. While some smoke was present over their famous Fay Vineyard and SLV Vineyards, winemaker Marcus Notaro decided to harvest the grapes, ferment the wine, do lab tests and then see how the wine tasted. He found plenty of wine lots that seemed unaffected and eventually bottled them.
An Unexpected Opportunity
Some nearby vineyards in Stags Leap and the rest of Napa Valley decided it was too risky to harvest their grapes and instead filed crop insurance claims or simply called off the harvest and took big financial losses. Those rejected grapes, however, presented an opportunity for other wine companies looking for profit.
The 2020 smoke vintage was a boon for Trevor Sheehan, president of Precision Wine, a specialist in supplying mostly Napa wines to large retail outlets. As harvest time arrived, he began seeing vineyard workers cutting off healthy-looking grape clusters and leaving them on the ground to wither. He asked around and one Stags Leap District vineyard, which he declined to identify, was willing to sell unwanted grapes to him at a discount instead of sacrificing them.
Sheehan says he purchased 100 acres worth of Cabernet Sauvignon at $2,000 per ton that might normally have sold for $14,000 a ton. He also bought at a discount from other vineyards and wineries leery of smoke taint. Precision Wine eventually bottled about 10 percent of Napa Valley’s total 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon production, according to Sheehan’s calculations, partly made from fresh grapes and partly from already-fermented bulk wine.
One wine made by his company from those heavily discounted grapes, Clos de Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, scored 92 points and retails for $75, nearly as low as Cabernet gets in the district. Another, Precision Navigator Napa Valley, also scored 92 points and costs just $25.
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Activity on the bulk wine market was slow at first, says Glenn Proctor, partner at grape and bulk wine brokerage The Ciatti Co. In 2020 he was also chair of the Sonoma County Winegrowers board. “One bulk wine buyer said I am not going to buy any 2020 and he hadn’t even tasted it. Even if test results were low, some said we don’t want it. But we didn’t have the knowledge base then to know what was going to happen (with wine quality). It was fear.”
Proctor is also a vineyard owner in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. He felt the LNU Complex fire’s fury personally when a branch of the LNU Complex known as the Walbridge Fire burned 130 acres of his family’s property, Puccioni Ranch. Flames and smoke in and around his vines left no doubt they were damaged. His entire crop of 85 tons of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet grapes were rendered worthless.
Losses like that in vineyards around both counties eventually made some wineries nervous that they might have little or no 2020 wine to sell. The bulk market then got heated as some companies rushed to offload and others rushed to buy 2020 by the barrel or tanker truck load.
The Trouble with Assessing Smoke Taint
Challenges with evaluating grapes and new wines for smoke effects caused a lot of consternation inside the cellars. Labs with the proper equipment for detecting the smoke damage “markers” of guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol were few and far between. During and after the smoke events, winemakers sometimes had to wait weeks for results and there was disagreement over how to interpret them.
If smoke effects were confirmed by testing or tasting (when a wine is badly smoked it’s easy to detect) wineries did have a few options to reduce those effects, including spinning cone processing, membrane filtration and fining agents. Using oak wood products early during fermentation also helped, according to Sheehan, whose team used all of these for the 2020 vintage.
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Oberholster at U.C. Davis pointed out that these processing treatments—accepted as not harmful for wine drinkers—are anathema to some producers of high-end, collectible wines whose brands tout a non-interventionist approach. “Quite a few did not have a vintage of 2020,” she says. “They made that choice because they have no quality margin [of error]. They knew they could not treat their wines.”
Her advice for wine shoppers regarding 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and Sonoma? “The main thing is for people to trust the bottles on the shelf; 99.9 percent are the quality that you would expect for the price.” Wine Enthusiast’s blind tasting analysis of the vintage corroborates that opinion.
Smoke Taint-less 2020 Napa and Sonoma Cabernets
Cathiard Vineyard 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Extraordinary and opulent, this densely concentrated, luxuriously textured flagship Napa wine by Florence and Daniel Cathiard of Bordeaux is their first vintage from the former Flora Springs property. The wine is softly saturated with black currants, blueberries, spearmint and black olives for a comforting, mouth-filling expression that is at once powerful and gentle. It feels layered, deep and creamy. Best from 2027-2037. Cellar Selection. 97 Points —Jim Gordon$440 Wine.com
Corison 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon (St. Helena)
Classic balance and a little restraint characterize this firmly structured, deeply flavored wine that brings black cherries, cranberries and black pepper to the front, backed by slightly tangy acidity and texturizing tannins that will help it mature nicely. Best 2028–2038. 95 Points —J.G.$ Varies Wine-Searcher
Lewis 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
This deeply concentrated and firmly structured wine is like an iron fist in a velvet glove. It boasts ultra rich and luxurious black cherries, blueberries and dark chocolate backed by firm, fine-grained tannins that give it aging potential. Best from 2027–2037. Cellar Selection. 95 Points —J.G.$120 Wine.com
Turnbull 2020 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville)
This densely packed wine is layered in gorgeous fruits from raspberries and dark plums to sweet cherries, all wrapped in velvety tannins for a smooth and creamy texture. The subtle oak spices are flooded by the potent fruitiness that lingers long on the finish. Best 2027–2035. 95 Points —J.G.$110 Wine.com
Pride Mountain 2020 Vintner Select Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Firmly structured and nicely saturated with black fruit flavors, this wine shows a quiet strength in its firm tannins, deep black cherry and blackcurrant flavors and layered integration of mint, chocolate and cedar nuances. Best from 2027-2037. Cellar Selection. 94 Points —J.G.$ Varies Wine-Searcher
Stags’ Leap Winery 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
A deep, brawny character in this full-bodied wine is nicely tempered by polished tannins and complex flavors. Aromas of toasted oak, blackberries and grilled sage lead to blackberry, blueberry and black olive flavors that are shaded by cocoa, espresso and sage notes. Best from 2028-2040. 94 Points —J.G.$57 Wine.com
Whitehall Lane 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Deep, dark and elegant, this full-bodied wine sips easily despite significant tannins since they are silky and fine-grained. Black cherries, blackberries and blueberries blend with hints of charred oak and iron for a complex, edgy palate. Best from 2028–2038. 94 Points —J.G.$56 Wine.com
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2020 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
This plush, delicious and fruit-drenched wine pairs wonderful black fruit nuances of crème de cassis and black cherries with subtle, layered oak spices of new leather, tobacco and graphite, while a creamy texture makes the mouthfeel almost irresistible. Best from 2025. 93 Points —J.G.$95 Wine.com
Trefethen 2020 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Oak Knoll District)
Sophisticated oak spices top abundant, ripe and chocolatey fruit flavors in this full-bodied, generous and velvety textured wine. While needing time for full enjoyment, this gorgeous bottle could be decanted and savored sooner with a steak or roast. Best from 2026–2036. 93 Points —J.G.$60 Gary’s Wine & Marketplace
William Hill Estate 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Inky dark in color, and supersaturated in flavor, this welcoming, generous wine bursts with blackberries, blueberries, mint and cinnamon notes that feel lush and rich on the palate. It is fun to sip, yet should age well for a few years. Best through 2030. 92 Points —J.G.$16 Wine.com
Raymond 2020 Reserve Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Ultrasmooth in texture and quite chocolaty in flavor, this posh, opulent wine offers good cinnamon, mint and cedar accents over chocolate and raspberries that linger nicely on the finish. Drink from 2024. 92 Points —J.G.$45 Wine.com
Frei Brothers 2020 Sonoma Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
This is a serious Cabernet, loaded with robust black-fruit flavors and firmly structured with tannins. It shows excellent concentration and delicious black cherry and black currant notes, along with hints of dark chocolate, mint and cloves. Best from 2025–2032. Editor’s Choice. 92 Points —J.G.$24 Total Wine & More
Bread & Butter 2020 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Bold aromas of toasted oak, cedar and cloves are echoed on the palate where smoky, tobacco-like flavors meet tangy black cherries. The texture is packed with firm tannins for a grippy mouthfeel. Best from 2026. 91 Points —J.G.$32 Wine.com
Jackson Estate 2020 Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County)
Smooth and darkly fruity, this full-bodied wine offers good, deep black cherries and blueberries along with light oaky accents of cedar, clove and mint. It firms up in texture with each sip, offering good structure for midterm aging. Best through 2028. 91 Points —J.G.$20 Wine.com
Roots Run Deep Winery 2020 Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa County)
Black currant and milk-chocolate flavors dominate this richly textured and full-bodied wine. Almost-sweet fruits and oak spices such as vanilla and nutmeg flood the palate, buoyed by fine-grained tannins. 90 Points —J.G.$20 Wine.com
Francis Ford Coppola 2020 Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
A silky smooth texture sets this wine apart from the pack as it doles out succulent black cherries, blackberries and subtle oak spices on soft tannins. Easy to appreciate and great for casual occasions. 90 Points —J.G.$23 Wine.com
Why You Should Trust Us
All products featured here are independently selected by our team, which is comprised of experienced writers and wine tasters and overseen by editorial professionals at Wine Enthusiast headquarters. All ratings and reviews are performed blind in a controlled setting and reflect the parameters of our 100-point scale. Wine Enthusiast does not accept payment to conduct any product review, though we may earn a commission on purchases made through links on this site. Prices were accurate at the time of publication.
Jim Gordon is senior editor tasting for Wine Enthusiast, and reviews the wines of Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
Published: October 10, 2023