Wineries Look to Plan B

Ongoing fires and road closures leave wine producers scrambling for labor and tank space

by Kate Lavin
napa sonoma carneros fire vineyard wine
Leaves and debris between the rows on the vineyard floor were singed by the Partrick Fire, which is burning 10,817 acres, according to Cal Fire. Photo: Aaron Dougal

Updated: 6:20 p.m.

San Francisco, Calif.—Shawn Harmon got the first call for help around 10 a.m. Monday. A truck carrying harvested wine grapes from Lake County to a winery in Napa Valley was blocked from its destination by road closures related to the Atlas Fire.

It wasn’t the last such call Harmon, general manager of Redwood Valley Cellars in Mendocino County, would receive that day. His custom-crush winemaking facility processes 7,000 tons of grapes in an average year, and as of this morning, the business had crushed 300 extra tons for clients affected by Northern California wildfires since Monday. By the time the 11 fires burning in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties are extinguished, Harmon says it’s likely Redwood Valley Cellars will have processed an extra 1,000 tons.

“It’s overwhelming at this point. It’s a tragedy, and I’m not sure when it’s going to end,” Harmon told Wines & Vines today.

Located in Redwood Valley, Calif., the custom-crush facility is the winemaking arm of a family business that also includes the Barra of Mendocino and Girasole Vineyards wine labels. Though the Redwood Complex fire started in Potter Valley, it quickly spread to Redwood Valley, damaging Oster Wine Cellars and Frey Vineyards.

“They’re doing an incredible job coping with what’s happened,” Harmon said of the Frey family. The neighboring wine producer is among the wineries from several counties utilizing extra tank space and crush equipment at Redwood Valley Cellars.

As of this morning, Cal Fire had 5% containment of the Redwood Fire Complex, which stood at 32,100 acres, comprising nearly 20% of the 160,631 acres burning in 11 fires throughout the prime winegrowing regions of Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

According to its most recent incident update, the Cal Fire’s Mendocino Unit battling the Redwood Complex expected to encounter northwest winds today, which would move the fire away from Redwood Valley.

Martha Barra, Harmon’s mother, was hopeful Cal Fire will allow them to return today to the family’s Redwood Valley vineyard property, which includes 60-year-old organically farmed vines, to assess any damage and (hopefully) harvest the remaining fruit. In total, the Barra family farms more than 300 vineyard acres.

Rack & Riddle, another large custom-crush business, operates out of two winery buildings in Sonoma County. Managing partner Bruce Lundquist says one of them, a facility on Moore Lane in Healdsburg, Calif., is “operational and running full tilt.” 

The other is located in Alexander Valley and part of an evacuation zone for the 8,130-acre Pocket Fire being overseen by Cal Fire's Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit.

“We were ordered out yesterday at 5 p.m.,” Lundquist told Wines & Vines via email. “Today (we) gained access for a couple hours and were able to take care of actively fermenting wines and ensure the security and condition of all the inventories. Whether we have the same access tomorrow remains to be seen. Hopefully progress on the fires in Geyserville will permit us a visit.”   
Lundquist said he has heard from clients looking to bring fruit to the Alexander Valley facility, but since it is in the evacuation zone, he cannot allow their requests.
Labor, access compromised
Kevin Barr, owner of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management, said the ongoing fires have affected employees at all levels of his business: Some were residents of Fountain Grove and Coffey Park in Sonoma County and lost their homes to the Tubbs Fire still burning 34,270 acres north of Santa Rosa, Calif.

In addition to the problem of access—winemakers either can’t reach their wineries due to road closures or can’t operate crush equipment due to power outages—Barr says he’s never seen people so upset.

Even those whose homes are safe are living in a state of agitation. “The word ‘evacuation’ has created panic,” Barr told Wines & Vines today from his office in Geyserville, Calif. Though his vineyard management office is on the west side of the Russian River, far from the flames, “Half of our employees have this fear that police and firemen are going to swoop in, and they’ll be separated from their families.”

Even so, 20% to 25% of the North Coast wine grape harvest is still in the vineyards, Barr maintains. “These grapes are tired; they want to be picked. Its’ been a long season. The heat waves have beat the hell out of these grapes, and the sugars are way up,” he said. “It’s not doing the grapes any good—or the farmer’s bottom line any good—that these grapes are shriveling on the vine.”

Barr’s advice to grapegrowers with contracted fruit is this: “These wineries are very resourceful. The winery will figure out a way.” Whether the solution includes waiting for shuttered wineries to reopen, involving a custom-crush operation or borrowing equipment, grapegrowing and winemaking associations from across California announced their intent to share crush space and equipment, offer labor and more. Look here for information, and check winesandvines.com tomorrow afternoon for further details. 

Additionally, Steamericas and Hotsy Pacific are offering free equipment rentals and mobile units to wineries affected by the North Coast fires. Read more here

For the latest updates about the fires in California, visit calfire.ca.gov.

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