Wine News Napa's Fire Response Overwhelmed and Underfunded

Napa's Fire Response Overwhelmed and Underfunded

The eagle and flag at Sherwin Family Winery survived the inferno, but other properties weren't so lucky.
© Wesley Steffens | The eagle and flag at Sherwin Family Winery survived the inferno, but other properties weren't so lucky.
Saving the vintage – and the vineyard – from fire might just depend on your budget.
By Kathleen Willcox | Posted Friday, 16-Oct-2020

For the first time since August, California’s wine country is beginning to get some relief, as the Glass and Zogg Fires approach complete containment, and the August, Creek and SQF Complex Fires surge past the half-contained point.

"For the past 15 days, I feel like I've been living in an action movie, fighting fires all around us day and night, coordinating with firefighters on the ground, our vineyard teams and other neighbors and volunteers," says Pam Bergman, co-owner of Bergman Family Vineyards, which sits on the edge of Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and has 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay under vine. Their first harvest was in 2018; while their vineyard and homes were threatened, two-plus weeks of fighting fires on the edge of their property salvaged their estate.

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"We were hit so hard, but it's finally under control thanks to the tireless work of the firefighters and the volunteer crews we cobbled together to support their effort – always under their direction."

But fire season is far from over, and producers' worries are just beginning, as they struggle to deal with smoke-affected grapes and prepare to wage battle with recalcitrant insurance companies.

And that's for the wineries that are still in one piece; according to Cal Fire, the Glass Fire ripped through 67,484 acres, destroying 343 commercial structures in Napa and 13 in Sonoma, and badly damaging 32 and eight in those counties, respectively. About 31 wineries, restaurants and lodges have been either demolished or damaged. More than 2000 residential and commercial structures remain threatened.

At least four dozen large and uncontained wildfires are rampaging through western states, with warnings of high wind events and record high temperatures across northern California. Most of the West Coast is under wind, fire or air quality advisories. So far, more than 5 million acres – a region slightly smaller than New Jersey, much larger than Connecticut – have burned across California, Washington and Oregon.

But another, potentially more threatening concern is rocking wine country. In a theme that is reflected everywhere in 2020, from the Black Lives Matter movement to concerns over internet access in rural communities for virtual learning, there is a growing sense that wineries with deeper pockets will be the only ones able to afford to protect themselves from fires this year and in the future, and the ones with access to the most cutting-edge technology to grapple with the effects of smoke taint.  

"We have been dealing with this four years, but 2020 has been the worst by far, especially coming after the devastation of Covid, which just destroyed all of our budgets for the year," says Sam Coturri, who founded Sonoma's Winery Sixteen 600 with his father in 2007, and whose family runs Enterprise Vineyards Management. "It has been devastating to watch what feels like the foundation of our civil society crumbling. Fighting fires should be a public good, supported by the government. Protecting your property shouldn't depend on how much you pay your insurance company. It smacks of inequity."

DIY firefighting

What Cal Fire and municipal firefighters have done to save what it has so far this year has been heroic, many say.

"You have no idea what they're dealing with every day until you're standing and watching them fight forest fires with flames surging 60 feet in the air and the wind blowing the fire toward them," says Sheldon Richards of Paloma Vineyard in Spring Mountain, where he saw the flames surge right up to his property. "I called them and found out they were headed the wrong way, so I directed them to us, and they saved our property."

But Richards acknowledges he was extraordinarily lucky, one of a handful of relatively unscathed wineries on Spring Mountain. Many people in wine country have taken matters into their own hands, simply because they felt they had to do whatever they could.

"We put together our own crew up on Spring Mountain out of necessity," says Wesley Steffens, estate director of Vineyard 7 & 8. "It was me and my crew, Steve and Matt Sherwin of Sherwin Family Winery, Fred and Andy Schweiger of Schweiger Vineyards and the team at Barnett. Schweiger bought their own fire truck, and we worked together, with the approval of Cal Fire and under their direction, fighting fire. That's all we did. We didn't do back fires or anything like that, we just tried to help out where we could."

Steffens spoke to Wine-Searcher on a drive back from the UPS drop-off, where he picked up fire hoses, wildfire-fighting uniforms and other equipment he ordered after his harrowing experience.

Several other winemakers are also pooling resources, buying fire trucks and creating strategic fire plans.Richards bought his fire truck with six other neighbors for $25,000 a few years ago; he spent $65,000 building out a metal fire hall for it on his property. He credits that investment, in part, with their ability to salvage as much as they did.

CalFire was stretched to the limit during the fires.
© AFP | CalFire was stretched to the limit during the fires.

Insurance companies are also deploying firefighters. Private contractors Wildfire Defense Systems alone has responded to more than 900 wildfires on the behest of insurance companies since 2013. But not everyone is thrilled with the results.

Torey Battuello, of St Helena’s Battuello Vineyards, says that after reaching out to their insurance company, they promised to help out. "When the fire was approaching, they showed up with eight trucks to help protect our property, where our knoll had caught on fire, a few hundred yards away from our house," Battuello says. "But then they got called to Spring Mountain, which was worse, and told us they'd be back in an hour. We never saw them again. I called them, and our insurance agent. I'm still waiting to hear back."

Bergman has met with her insurance company every year and has put every single fire protective recommendation they had in place.

"We had an agreement that they would send a crew if necessary to protect our infrastructure, cottage, family home and propane tank," she says. "I expected them on day one, but they showed up on day seven of the fires here, told our guys to move furniture, then left us and went to help support firefighters who were in a crisis zone. They did save the firefighters by helping reinforce a bridge that was their only way out of a fire. But I never saw them again. I'm still sleeping every night with a mask on because our house needs to be remediated; 25 of our 40 acres burned, 17 acres of which were forested and eight of which were meadows. I had fire breaks around our structures and vineyards, and we put together a team between us and our neighbors and were able to save our property."

She is still operating on generator power with no internet, or word from the insurance company.

"I love Cal Fire, what they're doing is phenomenal," she says. "But yes, my neighbors and I are absolutely talking about buying a fire truck and equipment."

High net worth individuals who have the cash – notably, Kim Kardashian West, who famously hired private firefighters in 2018 to save her $50 million mansion in Calabasas – are also hiring teams of firefighters. But some say that unless these crews are coordinating with Cal Fire and their municipal organizations (as everyone Wine-Searcher spoke to said they did), they may actually be creating dangerous situations.

"Look, it’s a complex issue," says Kurt P Henke, Sacremento Metro fire chief-turned-cofounder of fire prevention consultancy AP Triton. "Having spent almost 40 years in the public sector, fundamentally, I don't think you should privatize public safety functions. For-profit companies should not be responsible for the safety of citizens."

He added that private firefighting operations often don't have the same consistent levels of training, standardization of response and safety routines embedded in their cultures.

"If insurance companies want to help fight fires, they should fund municipal firefighting organizations," Henke says. "That's the only way there will be a systematic, top-down response. I've seen first-hand what can happen with these private companies. My neighbors paid their insurance company in part to provide fire protection, and the fire fighters showed up two days after their house burned to the ground."

Spiraling costs

As fires worsen, the average annual expenditure by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has surged from $25 million in 1979-80 to an estimated $401 million in 2018-2019. (At the rate of inflation, the number would have risen to about $91 million). 2020 will likely be much worse, just as state budgets have been stretched to their limit by the ongoing pandemic.

Insurance companies and producers are getting hammered as well, and are frequently at odds over who should carry the burden of the impact. (Many will be watching a lawsuit filed in Sonoma County Superior Court by Vintage Wine Estates and Kunde Enterprises, compelling nine insurance companies to reimburse them for $20m worth of smoke-tainted grapes resulting from the 2017 fires in northern California. A jury trial is scheduled for the first quarter of 2022 in San Francisco.)

Richards, whose winery was spared but whose crop was not, estimates that his grape harvest was worth between $400,000-$500,000.

"We had maybe 20 percent of our crop in before the Glass Fire incident started," Richards says. "Under the terms of our insurance, I'd get $77,000 if I claimed the entire crop, which I couldn't do. I'm going to try to claim what I can, but I don't have high hopes. Insurance companies are backing out of even insuring wineries and individuals in northern California. They're legally bound to for one more year. We'll see what happens after that. It could have been much worse though; I could have lost a house or a winery. Those people are the ones who most need support from insurance and the government, but I don't see it coming."

Post-fire tricks

Then there's the issue of the harvest, and the effect of smoke. As with fire protection, some producers are looking for better solutions from the private sector.

"There are so many unknowns for this vintage," says Rodrigo Soto, estate director at St Helena's 280-acre Quintessa. "We decided to harvest everything and evaluate as we go. Obviously, we would never compromise our brand by putting out anything compromised, but we're optimistic. We've been doing microferments and we've been using alternative processing methods."

Soto says he is frustrated by what he sees as the lack of innovation and research into smoke taint.

"There is such a lack of clarity," he says. "As we know, two wines can have the same pH, and be chemically identical and yet taste totally different. The guidance we have from universities is really not strong. The so-called 'grey area' where it is unclear if smoke will affect the grapes or not is significant, and from what I've seen it depends on the type of smoke and the variety of grape."

Soto says that he and Quintessa have turned to experimental treatments of grapes this year.

"True innovation on smoke-affected grapes is going to come from the private sector," he predicts. "We're using ozone, which is frequently sprayed on table grapes to eradicate pesticide, and is used by firefighters to get rid of the smoke smell in their clothes, in test batches to see if that eliminates issues without eliminating terroir.

"It’s up to us to move forward amid the world as it is now. We don't want to endanger our vision or brand, but the way we react to fire – from preventing it, to fighting it, to dealing with the after-effects – has to change. And we have to move fast."

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