My Thoughts on the Aftermath of the California Wine Country Wildfires

At the time I write this blog, the Wine Country Wildfires that ravaged Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties have just been declared 100% contained the day before, October 31st.  That’s 23 days of burning and destruction.  Numbers seem to differ depending on which news report you look at, and I’m sure the most accurate numbers will come out soon, but we can say that 150k-170k acres were burned, 8800-8900 structures were destroyed, and 43 people have died at this point, with several more still missing.  22 separate fires are to blame.  Last year, California had its wettest year in many years, which caused a large amount of vegetative growth and subsequent dry grasses this summer, giving these fires ample fuel to cause so much destruction.  The night the fires started, October 8th, the area experienced unusually high winds, which knocked down trees and power poles, starting the fires.  The high winds also pushed the flames faster and higher than normal.  No wonder this is being called one of the most deadly and destructive wildfires in California history!  In terms of acres burned, it falls at around number 9 on the list of largest California wildfires in recorded history, but the combination of fatalities, structures destroyed, and acres burned is unmatched in the state’s history.


Everyone in the wine industry seems to be focused on the effect this has had, and will have, on the wineries, grapes, and wines from these areas.  As a Bay Area winemaker, it is hard to wrap my head around that fact that these idyllic landscapes have been transformed into devastation and ruin, and that some of the places I have been to earlier this year are gone.  However, given the amount of wineries in that area, only a fraction were damaged or destroyed.  

 

Here is a list of wineries that have been completely destroyed (namely, the wine production facility and/or wines were lost):


NAPA COUNTY

  • Helena View Johnston Vineyards, Calistoga
  • Paras Vineyard, Napa
  • Patland Estate Vineyards, Napa
  • Pulido-Walker Estate Vineyards (vineyards only), Napa
  • Segassia Vineyard, Napa
  • Signorello Estate Vineyards, Napa
  • Sill Family Vineyards, Napa
  • VinRoc, Napa

SONOMA COUNTY

  • Ahh Winery, Glen Ellen
  • Paradise Ridge Winery, Santa Rosa

MENDOCINO COUNTY

  • Backbone Vineyard & Winery, Redwood Valley
  • Frey Vineyards, Redwood Valley
  • Oster Wine Cellars, Redwood Valley

Here is a list of wineries that have been severely damaged, but the winery buildings and wines are safe:


NAPA COUNTY

  • Darioush Winery, Napa
  • Hagafen Cellars, Napa
  • Jarvis Estate, Napa
  • Mayacamas Vineyards, Napa
  • Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Napa
  • Roy Estate, Napa
  • Silver Oak Cellars, Napa
  • Sky Vineyards, Mt. Veeder
  • Stags’ Leap, Napa
  • Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Calistoga
  • White Rock Vineyards, Napa
  • William Hill Estate, Napa

SONOMA COUNTY

  • Ancient Oak Cellars (largely gone but wines are safe), Santa Rosa
  • Château St. Jean, Kenwood
  • Domaine Carneros, Sonoma
  • Gundlach Bundschu Winery, Sonoma
  • Nicholson Ranch, Sonoma

MENDOCINO COUNTY

  • Golden Vineyards, Redwood Valley

These fires have done an estimated $3.2 billion in insured losses.  People can eventually rebuild; although, as is typical after a disaster, many lots may remain empty for years to come.  Some of the immediate damage to the wine industry and its workers, however, are already being felt.  Bottled wine has been lost, some library wines going back decades; barreled and freshly processed wines from recent vintages have been lost; vines have been destroyed; grapes yet to be harvested have been scorched or left to hang due to smoke taint; and employees have lost their jobs, some have also lost their homes and possessions.  In a sad and unexpected turn of events, many undocumented winery and vineyard workers have lost work and/or homes, and have been deemed ineligible for government assistance because of their citizenship status.  While American citizens are able to receive assistance and donations from any participating agency, undocumented workers cannot.  Although they are not American citizens, they are still people who have been displaced, but luckily, there has been at least one organization that I know of that has been feeding them and collecting donations for them.  


However, the impact may not be as bad as originally feared in terms of wine production.  According to Napa Valley Vintners (a non-profit designed to support and promote the Napa Valley wine country), Napa Valley vineyards account for only 4% of wine produced in California, and it is probably safe to assume that Sonoma’s production is similar, and Mendocino’s even less.  Although there will definitely be a shortage felt from this vintage, early estimations are that it will be similar to other common farming issues such as drought, frost damage, disease, etc.  About 90% of grapes in the area had already been harvested when the fires started, and those that could continued to harvest during the fires.  Efforts are being made to ensure that only the highest quality wines from this vintage will be released to consumers.

I spoke with a couple of my industry friends in the Sonoma region to see what impact, if any, they suffered, and what their plans were moving forward with the wines and grapes that were affected.  Cory Lester, Sales Representative for The Bambury Wine Collection in Sonoma says, “Thankfully most of the grapes were in already.  I do know a couple of vintners who chose not to harvest this year, but again, in both situations it was the last lot for each. Many people have done technical testing, resulting in below-threshold numbers (for smoke taint).  There are still a lot of questions about smoke taint and how it does affect vineyards.  People are fermenting quickly, and pressing quickly.  The fun is going to be the waiting game!  Even though the fires were devastating, and there is a lot to rebuild, we are hopeful the impact will be less than if the fires were earlier.  There has been nothing like this here (before)”.  The winemakers at her facility are sourcing fruit from Napa, Sonoma, and Redwood Valley---all epicenters of the wildfires.

Chris Sorenson, Cellarmaster at Kunde Family Estate in Kenwood says, “We were mostly picked before the fires started.  The largest issue I think most wineries here have had to deal with is lack of access (to their wines) and lack of power.  We were blessed to have a very large generator installed last year so we did not have any wine issues for the things that came in before the fires.  We are very busy since we have a flash detent on-site and a lot of the area’s wineries are taking advantage of it this year.  Smoke taint results are not in yet from ETS but so far things are tasting good.  We are having to keep some blocks separate that we would normally blend just in case one is tainted and the other is not.”  A flash detente is a machine usually used to super-extract color and flavor from grape skins, but it can be great for other uses such as this because it destroys cell walls.

So, thankfully the fires are contained and now thoughts can be turned toward mourning and rebuilding.  I am proud of all of the outreach that every wine region in California extended.  My own community sprung to action and collected donations, goods, food, and even offered space at their own wineries to those that needed to complete the season.  This is very generous, but even more so in the busiest time of year in the wineries.  

So, who says the wine industry is competitive???  We are all Wine Country Strong!