As I write this, less than 48 hours after the first alarms sounded of wildfires in California wine country, it is impossible to estimate the impact of this catastrophe. Fires are still spreading, people are still fleeing their homes and desperately trying to protect their families, pets and livelihoods. By the time you read this, the fires may be out, and we may have a clearer picture of the devastation to cities, neighborhoods, vineyards and wineries. It could be jaw-droppingly bad.
If you’ve ever visited Napa or Sonoma counties, you know someone affected by this disaster. Maybe you have friends or family there, or a favorite winery you visit and order wine from every time you’re in the area. Perhaps you remember that cheerful woman who poured you a taste at Signorello winery in Napa’s Stags Leap District or at Paradise Ridge winery near Santa Rosa, where you lingered to watch the sun set into the Pacific in the distance. Perhaps that waiter who so enthusiastically explained the daily specials and the wonderful zinfandel available by the glass at Willi’s Wine Bar. Signorello, Paradise Ridge and Willi’s are gone, as are many more of our favorite places to stay, visit or taste.
On the second morning — Tuesday — I heard a report on NPR by a KQED reporter who visited the Atlas Peak area of Napa County, where the first fires broke out late Sunday evening. She spoke of million-dollar homes consumed, “Bentleys burned to their metal frames,” and an infinity pool “cracked by the intense heat of the flames.” I shouted at my radio: What about the winery workers who live in the valley, or the migrant laborers who came north for the harvest? A mobile home retirement community in Santa Rosa was decimated, as were several stores and fast food restaurants. The charred hulks of cars in the news photos were Corollas and Civics, not Bentleys. Those hotels that burned down, the Hilton and the Fountaingrove Inn — rich people didn’t stay or work there. This is a calamity for everyone, not just the wealthy.
And fate was its usual fickle self, leaving people to wonder why they were spared when their neighbors were decimated. Adam Lee, winemaker at Siduri winery, in an industrial park in Santa Rosa just west of U.S. 101, walked past devastated blocks of his neighbors’ businesses and found his winery intact. Less than two miles away, my cousin’s house remained unscathed, while more than 40 homes in her development were burned to the ground.
Residents rallied through social media, posting news of fires, road closures and shelters opening for people and animals. I — and many others out of harm’s way — followed these updates raptly, trying to sort fact from rumor to glean news of friends and favorite wineries. My friend and fellow wine writer Elaine Chukan Brown fired off a volley of updates about wind direction and evacuation routes with a journalist’s sense for reporting facts over rumor. Because of her, I knew exactly where I could have taken my dogs or horses if I needed to. Reporting these developments was a coping mechanism perhaps, as she calmly evacuated her own family and pets from their home east of Sonoma late Monday when the fires turned in their direction.
Through it all, Brown never lost her sense of humor. “The people we were going to go sky diving with later this week had to evacuate but did not lose their home. Yay,” she posted on Facebook. “Even so, we will not be going sky diving this week.”
Early Wednesday, as the fires continued to spread, she wrote: “There are times when prayers make sense because it is all you have. Pray.”
This was supposed to be a column about the effects of the fires on the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma. And, well, it is, because the effects will be mainly on the people, not the wineries burned, damaged or spared, the grapes tainted or scorched.
Harvest was well underway, with only the latest-ripening grape varieties still hanging on the vines. These would be mostly cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, so those wines from 2017 might be the most severely affected, especially in areas where the fires hit hardest. (Zinfandel lovers can take comfort that Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, a prime zin region, was not hit.)
Wineries that burned down lost not only the 2017 wines, but also the 2015 and 2016 vintages of reds aging in barrels or bottles but not yet released. Even wineries that were spared may see their wines affected by smoke. Extended power outages may also affect wines in the cellar as they rise in temperature. And future vintages could be affected — destroyed vineyards may take several years to recover.
Vines may be more resilient that we expect, however. Daniel Roberts, a viticulturist based in Sonoma County, has helped restore four vineyards damaged by fire in the past. “It’s hard to kill vines,” he says. “The fire may kill the current foliage but rarely the vine itself.” Moisture within the trunk of the vine helps it stay alive even through the stress of a fire. “You may lose a year or two of crop, but the vines recover,” Roberts says.
Perhaps that’s a metaphor for the people of Napa and Sonoma. After all, this is a story about them.