Wine News Fires Leave Napa Harvest on a Knife Edge

Fires Leave Napa Harvest on a Knife Edge

The Black Rock Inn in St Helena is consumed by flames from the Glass Fire.
© Noah Berger/AP | The Black Rock Inn in St Helena is consumed by flames from the Glass Fire.
Producers are scrambling to save the vintage as fires once more devastate wine country.
By Kathleen Willcox | Posted Wednesday, 30-Sep-2020

Fires tearing through Napa and Sonoma could be the last straw for the 2020 vintage, as residents run for their lives and fruit gets dumped on the ground.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency as wildfires ripped through wine country in Napa, Sonoma and Shasta counties, killing at least three people, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate and incinerating hundreds of residences and other structures, and tens of thousands of acres of wildlands and vineyards since Sunday.

Related stories:
Fires Leave 2020 Vintage in the Balance
Winemakers Face Up to Smoke Taint Reality
Smoke and Mirrors: Fixing a Fiery Vintage

To date, 7.46 million acres have burned in the US, with 3.8 million of those in California alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Several fires – the Glass, Shady, Zogg, Boysen and August Complex Fires – are creating havoc and chaos for crews on the ground and community members under evacuation orders.

The fires are also torching, some fear, whatever hope was left for a normal harvest in California.

In Napa and Sonoma, more than 70,000 people have been ordered to leave, including the entire city of Calistoga, but in the era of coronavirus, evacuation centers, motels and dorms are reaching capacity and many are camping where they can or sleeping in cars. Santa Rosa's main evacuation center was itself closed as officials feared flames were coming to close.

On the ground, Wine-Searcher is getting reports from wineries all over California, and conditions vary dramatically.

On Monday, Neal Family Vineyards was surrounded by fire on all sides.

"My son and I helped the fire fighters who were just wiped out from fighting the fires the night before," Mark Neal, Neal Family Vineyards' owner and the co-founder of the Jack Neal & Son Vineyard Management company in Rutherford, recalled on Tuesday morning. "This fire is nasty, there's a lot of wind, and it's burning a lot hotter than wildfires have in past years because there's so much dead brush in the forests, plus the hot weather and low humidity. Some of this is Mother Nature, but some things, like practicing better forestry, would have made the fires a lot less intense."

The firefighters and the Neal family saved their vineyard and structures, but the fruit is lost. He grows grapes organically for himself and others; about 10 percent of his haul goes to his own 3000-4000 case line, but the remaining 90 percent goes to other winemakers.

"I am dropping 150 tons on the valley floor this year," Neal says. "I don't want my name attached to that fruit."

Meanwhile, reports of historic wineries going up in flames abound. Napa's Chateau Boswell Winery was destroyed, and dozens of other Napa and Sonoma estates reportedly sustained serious threats or damage, including Castello di Amorosa, Tofanelli Family Vineyard, Reverie Winery, Newton Vineyards, Schramsberg, Tofanelli Vineyard, Hunnicutt Winery, Viader Winery, Hourglass, Davis Estates, Ledson Winery and Lamborn Family Vineyards. Meanwhile, iconic inns with deep connections to wineries, including Meadowood Resort, Calistoga Ranch and the Black Rock Inn, were also badly burned.

There were bright spots as some were saved by fire crews, including Duckhorn Vineyards, Charles Krug, Ehlers Estate, Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel, Quintessa and Rombauer Vineyards, all of whom reported that their properties and staff were safe.

At Charles Krug, Judd Wallenbrock, CEO and President of Mondavi & Family, said the fires remain close on "either side of the property", but that the property is safe for now.

"We've been through earthquakes, multiple fires, a pandemic, multiple recessions and depressions and Prohibition, for God's sake, and this is ultimately something we will get through," Wallenbrock says. "Our top concern is our staff, and they are all safe. We're not sure about their houses, but our winery is surrounded by 150 acres, and for now, we're fine. We're seeing fires up in the hills but, in the valley, we haven't been hit like we were in 2017, when the fires just ripped through."

He is also bullish on the vintage.

"We're testing everything and doing microferments," he says. "All together, we have 850 acres from Carneros to Howell Mountain. Between the 75,000 cases we produce, the vast majority is thick-skinned and hardy Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc, where smoke can be managed in the production process. So far, our 2020 looks beautiful. It's the thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Zinfandel that will really be hammered."

How did we get so bad, so fast?

While out-of-control fires have become an expected feature of life in wine country, you're not alone if you think it's been getting worse each year.

"We have a unique problem in California," says Kurt Henke, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District's former fire chief, and the co-founder of AP Triton, LLC, a fire preparedness consulting business that works with the vast majority of major fire associations in the state. "We have a housing shortage and a pandemic. We have people wanting to move to the country from cities, and there is simply not adequate fire protection in those areas simply because it is prohibitively expensive."

And then there's climate change.

The remains of Napa's Chateau Boswell after flames ripped through it.
© Adam Gray/SWNS | The remains of Napa's Chateau Boswell after flames ripped through it.

"It is abundantly clear that the climate is changing," Henke says. "We used to have major fires once every six years, and the last several years we've been having six to eight major fires every year. Plus, because of the warming atmosphere, the winters aren't killing the beetles in Napa and Sonoma. So we have millions and millions of trees infested by these beetles have been hollowed out; they're essentially dried up matchsticks."

Henke adds that environmental concerns are ironically also making the situation worse.

"If you want to remove a tree, even a tree infested by beetles from your property, you have to get permission from the county," Henke explains. "Many business and home owners don't want to invest the time and money needed to do an environmental impact study just to remove a tree, so they let it sit there."

He says the "tree tinder", strict county rules, combined with the housing pressure and years of brush and litter build up across wildlands has created a perfect blueprint for destruction.

Fireproofing homes and vineyards

Meanwhile, many winemakers appear to be arriving at the same conclusions themselves, and are planning for more fires this year, next year and the year after that.

"I take these fires as a clear message, and while we have to rise above, adapt, learn, collaborate and find solutions, the true solution is to look to the root of the issue," Ariel Eberle, winemaker at Yamhill Valley Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. "The earth is changing, and that change is being accelerated or caused by humans. Let's talk about deforestation and water management, let's talk about climate shift and drought, let's talk about how to solve the problems, let's talk about our observation of how quickly nature came back when millions of people who previously drove to work were suddenly working from home.

"Let's talk about our farming methods and how no till [something that Yamhill Valley Vineyards adopted last year], reduces erosion, protects our waterways, increases water holding capacity of soils and brings a more abundant soil structure both in terms of nutrients and biology.  Let's talk about permaculture design and forging a new path, a new society, a new culture that's foundation exists in realizing how little we need, and what we can do to provide ourselves with nutrient-dense, nourishing foods and relationships."

Dan Lee, owner and winemaker at Morgan Winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands, says that while he's done everything he can to fireproof his vineyards, he wants to see more done to protect the communities in and around wine country.

"The entire West Coast was on fire this summer," he says. "We've lost a lot of our crop to smoke, as have so many others. And Cal Fire could have done more to prevent fires by clearing dead brush and installing fire breaks. I am going to be paying a lot more attention to political candidates' fire plans moving forward, and I know I'm not alone."

At Crown Point Vineyards in Santa Barbara, owner Roger Bower says they have been slowly but surely fireproofing their vineyard since buying the 45-acre property in 2012.

"We keep the property immaculate, and we have a full fire system with hydrants and irrigation," Bower says. "Much of it was here when we came, but we added a well, expanded irrigation and put in another 5.5-acre water reservoir, we have stand-by generators for the rolling outages, which we've used multiple times this summer."

Henke recommends, in addition to making tweaks to farming techniques and bolstering the fire response system, that wineries increase their defensible space around the buildings and vineyards by 100 feet, and covering every structure with exterior sprinklers.

Outside fruit grabs

But as winemakers fight to save their structures, vineyards and the lives of their families and staff, others wonder how the hell they're going to pay the bills when this is all over.

For many – if not most – Napa and Sonoma wineries, harvest will simply not be possible this year. Before this latest outbreak of severe fire, several weeks of accumulated smoke damage had threatened much of Northern California's crops, with several wineries, including Neal and Lamborn, publicly saying they wouldn't consider bottling this year.

For those who make their living making wine, going vintage-free in 2020 is economically infeasible, especially as insurance companies are less and less willing to cover smoke-tainted crops.

Down in Santa Barbara, about 300 miles away from Napa, harvest has been relatively smooth, and the winemakers there have had a lot of visitors from up north.

"I can't name names, but I will say that we have sold grapes for the first time to a number of cult winemakers in Napa," Bower says. "They bought our Cabernet Sauvignon and our Bordeaux blends."

So will it be Napa wine, made in Santa Barbara for 2020?

"We're still negotiating how it's going to be described on the label," Bower admits. "This is all new territory for us, and for them."

Federal law mandates that if at least 75 percent of the grapes came from one region, they don't have to declare where the other 25 percent came from. In other words, a wine made from 75 percent Texas grapes and 25 percent California grapes can call itself a Texas wine under these rules. And for wines labeled with an AVA, at least 85 percent of those grapes have to come from there. Vintage can be fudged too. As of 2006, up to 15 percent of a blend can come from a vintage other than the year stated. In other words, a Napa Valley 2020 vintage wine could be 15 percent 2019 grapes as long as they're local, and an additional 15 percent could be from, say, Santa Barbara. Technically.

Bower says there have been a lot of visits to his region from up north.

"So many Napa and Sonoma winemakers have been down here, negotiating with winemakers and growers," he adds.

Tim Snider, president of Fess Parker, which produces about 75,000 cases annually, and has vineyards in Santa Barbara, and grower contracts in Napa, concurs.

"I know a number of growers in Santa Barbara who have struck deals with Napa and Sonoma wineries, primarily for Pinot Noir," Snider says.

He also says that before the latest round of fires, Fess Parker was in negotiations with its Napa growers on how to handle the Cabernet Sauvignon crop.

"We work with four growers, and we're all trying to be as collaborative and cooperative as possible," he explains. "We've been doing microferments and so have they. One looked so bad that we're not sure if they're going to pick at all, and two others looked okay, with the fourth being a question mark. One we picked last week and began to process, and we were hoping to move forward with at least one other, but now we'll have to test again."

Everyone's scrambling, he says. No one know what's going to happen next.

"All we can do is push ahead, and hope for the best," Snider says.

And while all of these winemakers are doing that, buy their wine.

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