Liza B. Zimmerman outlines the main challenges facing the wine industry and also wider community now that the devastating California wildfires have been contained.
Update on the wildfires in California wine country
Fires across northern California had been 100% contained by 27 October, but not before at least 41 people had died, many more had lost their homes and more than 10,000 firefighters – some of them rushed in from neighbouring states – had fought the blazes in and around California wine country.
Close to 6,000 properties were destroyed during the fires, which spread quickly due to high winds.
While loss of life and the destruction of homes have understandably dominated concerns and relief efforts, California’s Wine Institute (CWI) said that it estimated 11 wineries across Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma Counties had also been destroyed or heavily damaged. But, it added that this compares to the 1,200 wineries in total in those areas.
Below, Liza B Zimmerman outlines the main challenges now facing the region’s wine industry:
A closer look at what comes next, in no particular order:
- Letting consumers know that wineries, hotels and restaurants are open and ready for business.
- Helping displaced employees and neighbours rebuild their homes and communities.
- Dealing with employee absenteeism as vineyard workers deal with reconstructing their personal lives.
- Finding temporary and long-term housing for winery employees who have lost their homes.
- Spreading the word to consumers that 90% of the grapes for the 2017 harvest had been already picked before the fires broke out, with the exception of some of the late-harvested Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
- Ascertaining if there is any smoke-taint effect in the wines that are currently in barrel and tank.
- Early signs suggested that the wine that was already ageing won’t be damaged.
- Winemakers are keen to highlight that most vineyards only suffered minimal damage. Vines do not burn easily, and some acted as firebreaks.
- Recuperating lost sales and tasting room revenue.
- Cleaning burnt-out land and clearing fallen trees on the road
- Seeding vineyards to prevent potential erosion
- Sharing with the world that there is a determination within communities to rebuild, as outlined by Ray Signorello Jr in a recent Decanter.com interview.
Producers and hospitality professionals who contributed these bullet points include: Remi Cohen, vice president and general manager of Lede Family wines which includes Poetry, Cliff Lede, Savoy and FEL; Russell Joy, vice president of California operations for the Woodinville, Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates; Hank Wetzel, proprietor of Alexander Valley Vineyards; and Derek Webb, owner of the Triple S Ranch resort in Calistoga.
How the situation looked by 16 October, one week on:
Figures updated on 17 October
- The death toll reached 41 on Monday 16 October, said state fire service Cal Fire.
- 11,000 firefighters were still fighting fires, but significant progress had been made.
- 40,000 people remained evacuated, with an estimated 5,700 properties destroyed and 214,000 acres of land burned.
- Wine associations said that their first concern was naturally for the welfare of residents and neighbours. But Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) said that 20 of its members reported damage to property. It earlier reported that five wineries suffered ‘total or very significant losses’.
- For perspective, the California Wine Institute said on Monday that fewer than 10 out of 1,200 wineries across Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties had been ‘destroyed or heavily damaged’. These three areas represent 12% of California’s total wine grape production.
- 90% of the Napa and Sonoma 2017 harvest had been picked prior to the fires, and 75% of Mendocino’s harvest was picked. Some Cabernet Sauvignon was still on the vines, although there was hope that its thick skin would help to protect from smoke taint.
Report from Liza B. Zimmerman in California:
The real tragedy of the situation is one of human loss and displacement, as firefighters have justifiably focused on saving lives rather than property.
Many wine country workers have lost homes and possessions to the fire and don’t have any insurance as renters and migrant workers.
Prior to when multiple fires broke out about a week ago, there was already a premium on affordable housing where wine country workers lived and the situation is only likely to get worse.
It has been compared to the 1991 Oakland fires which drastically diminished the amount of affordable housing as residents, and new buyers, choose to build expensive mini-mansions after the devastation.
Mark Vernon, the CEO of Ridge Vineyards, which has wineries in Santa Cruz and the North Bay, said that he woke up to fires burning in Napa County last Sunday. He suspects that they may have been caused by downed power lines.
At Darioush Winery on the Silverado Trail, president Dan de Polo said that the family owners of the property who were on the estate when the fires broke are all safe.
He added that he has since tasted through the wines in tank and determined them to all be stable and added that the real tragedy is about human displacement.
Next door, Signorello Estate saw its winery building burned to rubble, although its 2017 juice and 2016 vintage in barrel survived unscathed, as did all staff.
As many hotels and restaurants were damaged or shuttered this past week, the bulk of visitors headed south to destinations such as the Monterey Peninsula because their visits had been cancelled in Napa and Sonoma.
The air and smoke was so bad in the city of San Francisco on Thursday that my head was covered in ash after mailing a letter.
Public buses in San Francisco were full of ash and nightstand tables, left by open windows, were covered in soot for most of last week. San Francisco is approximately 80 kilometres from Santa Rosa, the one of the epicentres of the fire.
There was a determination to carry on among producers. ‘All we want to do is get back to work,’ said de Polo. In terms of the long-term outlook, ‘it is way too early to determine the economic impact’, said Paul Leary, president of Blackbird Vineyards.
How you can help:
Round-up as of 16 October, 9am UK time
- The death toll from the California wildfires rose to 31 by Friday morning (13 October), according to Cal Fire, the state fire service. LA Times reported on Sunday 15 October that 40 people had died, including elderly citizens as well as at least one teenager. An estimated 5,700 structures have been destroyed.
- Eleven thousand firefighters were still tackling blazes across Northern California, including crews from neighbouring states. High winds were restricting containment efforts, although three fires had been fully contained by Friday and there were reports of good progress in general by Sunday, said Cal Fire. Still, 75,000 people remained evacuated.
- For most of last week, there have been mass power outages, evacuations, road closures and a lack of mobile phone network, which have hampered relief efforts. Nearly 218,000 acres burned, according to Cal Fire.
- Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) said on Thursday (12 October) that five wineries owned by members have suffered ‘total or very significant losses’, with at least 11 members reporting some damage to winery buildings and vineyards. Vines themselves don’t burn easily, however.
- NVV emphasised that its first concern was for the welfare of residents and neighbours. An economic assessment of damage was not possible at this stage, it said. However, it added on Friday that, having spoken to 215 members, including most of those in the high risk areas, it believed that 20 wineries had suffered some form of damage.
- As the week has gone on, first-hand accounts of the fire have started to emerge. Ray Signorello, of Signorello Estate on the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, told Decanter.com that his winery building was completely destroyed by a ‘tornado’ of fire that the winemaking team nevertheless tried to fight. His barrel room, holding the 2016 vintage, survived and so did the vats holding the 2017 vintage, with the vineyards also largely untouched. All 25 staff were safe and well. Read more of our interview with Signorello on Decanter.com soon.
- Many producers were unable to reach their properties, leaving them hoping for the best. Carole Meredith was one of those producers evacuated from the Mt Veeder area. She told Decanter.com that she hasn’t known fires this bad in the Napa and Sonoma region since 1964.
- In the UK, Roberson wine has launched a JustGiving page in an attempt to raise £10,000 for California fire victims. Money will go to the Napa Valley Community Foundation and the Sonoma County Resilience Fund.
- Most of the grapes for the 2017 vintage in Northern California had already been harvested before the fires began.
- Nancy Bialek, executive director of the Stags Leap District Association, reported on the situation in her area: ‘Several homes in the higher elevation of the Stags Leap District were destroyed; residents were evacuated looking at a frightening wall of fire. Our hearts go out to our neighbours who have lost so much.’ She added that no wineries in that area had reported significant damage. ‘Compared to our neighbours in Soda Canyon and Atlas Creek we feel very fortunate.’
- Winery associations have warned against speculation as to the extent of damage, with several rumours circulating.
Reporting by Chris Mercer
The update below was published on 12 October at 9am UK time. Written by John Stimpfig.
Update: California fires latest
The death toll caused by the California wildfires had risen to 23 by Thursday morning (12 October) with hundreds more people still reported as missing as flames continued to devastate parts of Northern California, according to the latest report by CNN.
Fires were still raging in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino, with higher winds predicted over the next few days making containment even more hazardous and difficult.
In Sonoma County alone more than 180 people are still reported missing. Local authorities therefore expect the death toll to rise.
The fires began on Sunday evening driven by high winds and dry conditions and have so far destroyed at least 3,5000 homes and businesses, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire service. Flames have also laid waste to vineyards and wineries. Cal Fire said on Wednesday (11 October) that 170,000 acres of land have been burned. Its crews were struggling to contain many of the fires, its data showed.
As reported on Decanter.com, Signorello Estate has been burned to the ground, as well as Paradise Ridge. In addition, the Napa Valley Vintners has received preliminary reports that at least four physical wineries belonging to NVV members have suffered total or very significant losses due to the fire. At least nine other members reported damage to their winery, outbuildings or surrounding vineyards.
However, Napa Valley Vintners has yet to hear from some members in the most vulnerable areas of the valley including along the Silverado Trail, in Calistoga, and in the Mt Veeder/Patrick Road/Henry Road areas. Other wineries have not been able to access their properties and do not know what condition they are in.
The Valley has seen power outages and it has not been easy to communicate via email, text or phone. This situation is likely to continue for the next 24 to 48 hours, said a NVV spokesperson.
Although it is too soon to know the impact on the vintage overall, Napa Valley Vintners estimate about 90 percent of the grapes had been harvested. Those remaining are almost entirely Cabernet Sauvignon, which should have minimal damage from smoke taint, thanks to the thick skin.
The Napa Valley Vintners is working with local agencies to help coordinate relief and recovery efforts. It has also reactivated the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund for anyone wishing to make donations. The fund was first set up in 2014 after the South Napa earthquake.
In spite of challenging communication problems in the wake of the fires, the California Wine Institute has also provided details of a number of websites where people can donate funds and where those affected can receive much needed assistance.
Drop-off location – Napa Valley College Gym (2277 Napa Vallejo Highway)
SHARE Sonoma County has created temporary home sharing for those who have lost their housing due to the recent fires: SHAREFire@petalumapeople.orgor 707-765-8488, ext. 126
Drop off location – Santa Rosa, bring donations to the Veterans Memorial Building and Hall (1351 Maple Avenue)
Drop-off location – Petaluma, bring supplies to the Petaluma Community Center (320 N. McDowell Boulevard) or the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds (175 Fairgrounds Drive)
Drop off location – Yuba County, drop-off donations of water, food, and diapers can be left at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds Evacuation Center (442 Franklin Avenue, Yuba City)