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Fires Devastate California Wine Regions

October 2015
by Paul Franson
Mountain Ranch Winery
Kevin and Theresa Locke's 5-acre Mountain Ranch Vineyard was lost during the Butte Fire.

Middletown, Calif.—Less than two months after the massive Rocky Fire burned 70,000 acres in California’s Lake County, located just north of Napa and Sonoma counties, the even more devastating Valley Fire burned an additional 70,000 acres, destroyed 585 homes and forced as many as 13,000 people to evacuate many small towns.

At least one civilian died in the fire, and four firefighters were injured.

The blaze was only 30% contained as of 8 a.m. on Sept. 16, when an additional 7,650 structures remained threatened.

The Valley Fire also burned parts of vineyards and Shed Horn Cellars’ winery building in Middletown, along with the home of its owners, Michael and Adawn Wood.

The fire started Sept. 12 near the small resort town of Cobb, Calif., and Cal Fire was investigating its cause. The flames moved southeasterly at a furious pace due to the heavy winds and dry conditions after four years of drought.

Six Sigma Ranch and Winery, which was evacuated during the Rocky Fire, closed once again. Christian Ahlmann, the company’s vice president and livestock manager, told Wines & Vines that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. might not have power restored to the winery for weeks. “Our main challenge is running the winery without electricity, keeping the fermenting wines safe and coming in the back gate from Morgan Valley Road—a 3-mile trek,” Ahlmann said Sept. 16. “Matt (Hughes) and his crew are doing pumpovers by hand using a bucket and pulley system (we call them dump-overs!), and we are watering some of the vineyards with an existing generator. My project today is to sneak another generator in the front gate so we can power the winery.”

Denise Roach, director of marketing for Foley Family Estates, reported that its Langtry Winery in Guenoc Valley near Middletown was back up and running Sept. 14 powered by a generator. “It’s likely that we won’t be able to harvest the remaining grapes due to smoke damage, but our winemaker is doing some lab work to confirm. The good news is that it appears the actual damage to vineyards may not be as bad as we initially thought. There are areas of green once you get past the most outer vines.”

She added that they lost one of the homes on the property, but the historic Lillie Langtry home was saved. More importantly, Roach said, “All employees are all safe and accounted for.”

Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards, which owns 1,300 acres in the Red Hills of Lake County near the fire, reported that harvest had been delayed since roads were closed. “We’ve had no fire damage. And no employees’ homes have been destroyed or personnel hurt.”

“It’s a far different situation from the fire of 2008. It’s later in the season, and the smoke is dissipating quickly.”

Thanks to the early harvest, most grapes near the fire had been picked. The fire also grew very fast, so that smoke may be not have been present long enough to taint the grapes.

Clay Shannon, who owns 630-acre Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery south of Clear Lake, Calif., said the fire was about 2 miles south of his property, but he didn’t expect it to come that far. Unfortunately, three of his office personnel had lost their homes.

Shannon had planned to crush grapes at Langtry Estates, but he couldn’t get there due to road closures.

Natalie Hoch Henderson, senior manager of corporate communications for E. & J. Gallo Winery, sent an update to Wines & Vines, which read: “We have a number of employees that have been affected by the Valley Fire....With regard to our vineyards, the Valley Fire is still very active, which has prevented us from assessing the extent of the damage to our property. It does appear that our Snows Lake Vineyard has suffered damage, and the fire is still burning along the vineyard’s southern boundary. We have suspended all harvest activities in the area. Our other vineyards in the region appear to be OK at this time but remain at risk.”

Though the small downtown was mostly unaffected, many homes in the town of Middletown burned to the ground, and the fire had damaged water-distribution facilities and a massive complex of geothermal power plants known as The Geysers.

It also destroyed 1885 Hoberg’s Resort, which was being restored, as well as the popular clothing-optional resort Harbin Springs.

Mandatory evacuations were called in many areas—even in Napa and Sonoma counties—and many major roads were closed.

Fighting the flames were 2,793 fire personnel, 317 fire engines, 56 fire crews, eight air tankers, 15 helicopters and 43 dozers.

In Napa County to the south, the Valley Fire slowed its progress above Aetna Springs in Pope Valley. Plans were in place to try to build a perimeter to deter forward spread there.

At the same time Cal Fire battled back flames in Lake County, nearly 5,000 fire personnel struggled to contain the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. At press time the Butte Fire had charred 71,780 acres, destroyed 233 homes and was 45% contained.

According to Wines Vines Analytics, Amador and Calaveras counties are home to 84 wineries.

Kevin and Theresa Locke, owners of 500-case Locke Vineyards, lost the Mountain Ranch Vineyard they purchased in 1995. The vineyard property was planted to 5 acres of Zinfandel, and its grapes went to several local wine producers including 4,000-case Hatcher Winery. After surveying the scene, the owners reported that in addition to its 2015 estate Zinfandel, its irrigation system was a total loss.

The Lockes are longtime residents of Murphys, Calif., which is home to multiple wineries and tasting rooms and was ordered evacuated during the blaze. Locke Vineyards announced that its downtown tasting room would reopen Sept. 17 to raise funds for their Mountain Ranch neighbors who lost their homes.

Evacuations made it impossible for many other Foothills wineries to harvest their vineyards, which were mid-harvest at the time of the fire.

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