October 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Fires Rage Across North Coast Wine Country

 
by Kate Lavin and Andrew Adams
 
 

San Rafael, Calif.—In what may prove to be the state’s deadliest and costliest natural disaster in modern history, wildfires ripped through nearly every premium winegrowing region in Northern California in mid-October. The fires had burned 245,000 acres, destroyed 6,900 structures and killed 42 people at press time.

The blazes started late Oct. 8 and were fanned by strong, dry winds into violent firestorms that spread throughout Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Solano counties. When the fires began, a significant portion of the North Coast’s Cabernet Sauvignon crop and other late-ripening varieties were still on the vine. Consequently, at many vineyards in areas under mandatory evacuation orders, grapes went unpicked for days with clusters hanging in thick, dark smoke.

Fighting to save the vines
Members of the Palmaz Vineyards picking crew encountered an unwelcome guest as they arrived at the property early Oct. 9. The Atlas Fire first reported Oct. 8 at 9:20 p.m. was encroaching on the family-owned property in the Coombsville AVA. In a moment, the vineyard workers became firefighters.

When she spoke with Wines & Vines on Oct. 10 from the estate winery where she lives with her family, Florencia Palmaz was still reeling from the explosive fire. “This is completely to the credit of our vineyard team. This vineyard wouldn’t exist if these guys weren’t here,” she said. “I am so grateful to the dedication of their effort. They have worked nonstop for 26 hours.”

After a full day of battling wildfires, the fog rolled in just after midnight Oct. 10, and the flames subsided. Palmaz said the crew slept for a few hours before waking up to start picking at 3 a.m. The remaining workers (several crew members couldn’t get through) harvested 7.5 tons of Clone 4 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Several days later, as evacuation orders started to lift, the focus shifted to harvesting the remaining grapes and picking up the pieces of burnt homes and wineries.

In Napa and Sonoma counties, growers and vintners sought to secure permits granting them access to pick grapes in areas closed by the fire.

Napa County agricultural commissioner Greg Clark told Wines & Vines on Oct. 16 that his office had granted 150 permits from 350 requests.

Cal Fire and the ag commissioner’s office advised wineries not to pick any grapes that had a dusting of pink fire retardant on them. Clark said firefighters haven’t been dousing many vineyards because they’ve proved to be effective fire breaks, but some retardant may have drifted onto vines. On Oct. 15, Cal Fire reported it had dropped more than 2 million gallons of retardant on fires throughout the state.

The Napa Valley Vintners reported Oct. 18 that 47 member wineries had been damaged in the fires. According to Mendocino Winegrowers, 38 vineyard properties totaling 900 acres were in the fire zone, and five vineyard properties totaling around 200 acres in Potter Valley were damaged.

Napa in the fire zone
Signorello Estate, located along Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail and founded in 1985, was one of the first victims of the fast-moving Atlas Fire. In a statement released later in the week, as firefighters were beginning to gain containment on the blaze that had spread into Solano County, winery owner Ray Signorello pledged to rebuild. “The most important thing is that all 25 of our employees are safe,” he said. “We can—and we will—rebuild the winery.”

While the winery buildings “essentially burned to rubble,” Signorello said the estate vineyards are in good shape, and nearly all of the grapes had been picked. The 2017 wines in tanks taste sound, as do the 2016 reds and 2017 whites that were in barrel, he said. The winery’s inventory of 2015 reds and 2016 white wines also were safe at an offsite warehouse.

Michael Honig, chairman of NVV board and president of Honig Vineyards & Winery, said: “The Napa Valley community has always been a strong community. Robert Mondavi used to say, ‘The better the Napa Valley brand does, the better we do individually.’ We’ve struggled through drought, pestilence, earthquake—even Prohibition. We suffered and we survived, so this is a hiccup in the context of a generational business.”

Sonoma County
Fires struck nearly the length of Sonoma County—from Sonoma Valley, where the blazes threatened several historic wineries, up to Geyserville.

Paradise Ridge winery, north of Santa Rosa, was destroyed in the Tubbs Fire.

“Everything is gone, it’s a big job to get our systems back up and running,” said Sonia Byck-Barwick whose parents purchased the 155-acre property in 1978 and founded the winery in 1994.

Byck-Barwick was happy to report that the winery’s satellite tasting room in the small town of Kenwood, Calif., did survive. But for everyone in Sonoma County and the rest of the North Coast to rebound from the fires, she stressed the area needs to regain its lifeblood: tourism.

“Our community needs people to keep coming to Sonoma County,” she said. “We rely on people visiting, buying wine and visiting restaurants.”

David Jeffrey, owner of Calluna Vineyards on Chalk Hill, said in an email that between the fires and the heat wave during Labor Day Weekend, 2017 could be known “as the vintage from hell.”

From his vineyard, which has a 360° view of the surrounding region, he watched the Tubbs Fire explode into a firestorm and later evacuated because his property is only accessible by one road.

Jeffrey makes his wine at the custom-crush facility Vinify in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa. While the winery escaped the widespread destruction, it was in an evacuation area, so access was limited and there was no power.

On Oct. 11, he managed to access the winery and do some critical pumpovers. He said he picked nearly all of the estate fruit before the fires except for one small block. “We can sequester the wine from that one block and, if it has the dreaded smoke taint, then it will not get into our finished wines.”

The relatively new Fountaingrove District AVA was directly in the path of the Tubbs Fire, and many vineyards and homes in the area were destroyed.

Mary Lou Marek, owner of Antonina’s Vineyard and president of the Fountaingrove District Winegrowers Association, reported Oct. 13 that 12 homes and 90 acres of vineyards had been lost, while the fate of another 110 acres was uncertain.

Mendocino County
Fires in the Redwood and Potter valleys of Mendocino County also destroyed some vineyards as well as one winery and caused extensive damage at another.

The small Backbone Vineyard & Winery in the Redwood Valley suffered severe damage to the estate vineyard, and the winery was destroyed. “The winery burned to the ground, along with all the wine we’ve made since we moved here in the spring of 2013—five vintages,” winery owner Sattie Clark said.

Clark said she remains grateful that her home and the shop where she produces decorative, custom lighting under the Eleek brand survived.

Frey Vineyards, one of the nation’s largest organic wineries, suffered extensive damage but was not destroyed. “The original winery building that housed the offices and bottling room were destroyed, but our production facility can be easily restarted as soon as we can get full access back to the winery,” Nathan Frey told Wines & Vines in an email.

He added that Redwood Valley Cellars, Parducci Winery and Fetzer Vineyards had all provided assistance crushing grapes from the current vintage.

“We are really grateful for the help from a few local wineries that are crushing some of our grapes,” he said. “Plans for the winery are to get fully up and running again as soon as possible.”

Shawn Harmon, general manager of Redwood Valley Cellars, said the custom-crush winemaking facility processes 7,000 tons of grapes in an average year, and it’s likely to process an extra 1,000 tons for wineries affected by the fires. “It’s overwhelming at this point. It’s a tragedy, and I’m not sure when it’s going to end.”

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 Fountaingrove and Coffey Park in Sonoma County and lost their homes to the Tubbs Fire.

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

Even so, 20% to 25% of the North Coast wine grape crop was still in the vineyards, Barr said. “These grapes are tired; they want to be picked. It’s 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.”
 

 
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