Fire Nears Historic Vineyard and Wineries

Some tasting rooms close as Alamo Fire forces residents to evacuate near Bien Nacido Vineyards

by Jaime Lewis
wine alamo fire santa maria
The Alamo Fire continued burning east of downtown Santa Maria, Calif. Photo: Au Bon Climat/Facebook

Updated: Monday July 10, 8 a.m.

Santa Maria, Calif.—Cal Fire's San Luis Obispo Unit reported Monday morning that the Alamo Fire had grown to nearly 29,000 acres this weekend due to high temperatures, low humidity and winds. Presently 1,664 firefighters are working to control the blaze, and mandatory evacuations are in effect with one structure already destroyed and 133 threatened.

The Alamo Fire first reported Thursday afternoon was 15% contained Monday morning. The fire originally off Highway 166 near Twitchell Reservoir east of downtown Santa Maria is not far from the historic Bien Nacido Vineyards and the wine-production facility for 50,000-case winery Au Bon Climat.

"It's close," Bien Nacido vineyard manager Chris Hammell said via text Saturday morning. "Vineyards should be fine. Smoke and ash traveling east of vines and structures."

Nicholas Miller, of the Miller family that owns Bien Nacido, shared that he was nervous about how the fire would progress with scorching temperatures in the day's forecast, and reported that the fire had burned up to North Canyon Vineyard owned by Treasury Wine Estates, just to the north, but had stopped at the vineyard.

On Saturday, staff from Byron and Cambria wineries were sent home, and the tasting room for Cambria was closed in response to the creeping Alamo Fire.

Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said Friday, “This afternoon, the fire jumped the retardant lines in place and is now burning out of control in Santa Barbara County jurisdiction.” He added that flames are being pushed by winds out of the north and northwest and heading toward the Tepusquet Canyon area, home to Kenneth Volk Vineyards (which could not be reached late Friday).

About 300 residents of the Tepusquet Blazzing Saddles area have been given evacuation warnings, according to Cal Fire.

Katie O’Hara, marketing director for Clendenen Lindquist Vintners, which produces Au Bon Climat, Verdad and Qupé wines, estimated the fire at about a half-mile away from the company’s winery facility Friday afternoon.

“I can see the flames from here,” she said. “They’ve ordered an evacuation for the street we’re on, but at this point it looks pretty well contained, at least from our end of things.”

Clendenen Lindquist Vintners produces wines from a facility on Bien Nacido Vineyard, which was settled as a Spanish land grant in 1837 and planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 1973 by the Miller Family. An original adobe home from 1855 remains on the property today, surrounded by vines. O’Hara said Bien Nacido Vineyard is 1,500 acres with 900 planted to vines.

Though the wine grapes haven’t yet reached véraison, O’Hara said there are “definitely clusters beginning to grow.” She believes the smoke won’t affect the grapes, however. “I don’t think there’ll be any danger of smoke taint, so far.”

Meanwhile, San Luis Obispo Public Health advised residents of southern San Luis Obispo County to stay indoors, as air quality had been affected by the fire.

A previous fire threatened Bien Nacido Vineyard just two weeks ago, but O’Hara says that, in her four years with Clendenen Lindquist, she’s never been forced to evacuate or seen any fire damage. Fortunately, the Qupé, Verdad and Au Bon Climat tasting room is in Downtown Santa Barbara, far from the blaze.

As far as protective measures go, O’Hara said she hadn’t heard anything definitive yet. “It came over the ridge here, so we’re a little concerned, but it hasn’t progressed from the top of the ridge. At this point, there’s a lot of asphalt between it and us, and there’s not much to burn.”

Rogers from Jackson Family Wines told Wines & Vines, "Our protocol is not to go near it and let the firefighters do their job." She added that there is potential for smoke taint, recalling how last year's fires in Monterey County caused extreme smoke taint across some Jackson Family Wines vineyards in the area. "Even if we protect our vineyards and don't let them burn, there's always the potential for damage from smoke."

For the latest information about the Alamo Fire, visit Cal Fire's Alamo Fire incident page.

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