At 5am on September 15th of this year, I set out in the pitch dark from Calistoga with Kirk Venge, third-generation Napa winemaker with two brands of his own and winemaking consultant to some of the most exciting wines being made in California right now. The idea was to shadow him in order to gain insight into the routines of an elite winemaking consultant during the COVID-19 pandemic — how was his already high-stakes work complicated during this challenging time, and how did he manage to deliver for the clients who had entrusted him with their most important projects, as both consultant and collaborator?
Kirk Venge pulling samples of harvest-ready grapes to test for smoke taint.
The first answer is that a global pandemic was the least of Venge’s worries. It’s easy enough to social distance out in the vineyards, as well as mask up and take your space in various winery facilities. (Some of Venge’s consulting clients have brick-and-mortar wineries and some work via custom crush.) There are certainly large questions about business decisions to be made, given the uncertain nature of luxury wine sales now, but the bigger problem on Venge’s hands this day was smoke. The 2020 series of fires in Napa and Sonoma started dangerously close to harvest time for many vineyards, and we set out to investigate which, if any, of the vineyards he has longstanding contracts with would have any grapes to harvest at all.
Pristine Pinot Noir Grapes at Platt Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.