Wineries have so far been spared the worst of California’s largest recorded wildfire, which has burned through 300,000 acres and destroyed upwards of 100 homes, but some producers were testing for smoke taint.
Wildfire season in California has already brought the largest fire in the state’s history, with two blazes comprising the Mendocino Complex fire growing to roughly the size of Los Angeles earlier this week.
While firefighter efforts have naturally focused on saving lives and residential areas – no fatalities had been reported by 8 August – there has also been relief among wineries so far.
Despite destroying more than 100 homes, the fire has burned mostly through forest and wildlands, said Glenn McGourty, viticulture & plant science advisor for Mendocino and Lake Counties with the University of California Co-operative Extension. He has received no reports of lost vineyards in either county.
CalFire, the state fire service, said the blaze was around 50% contained by 8 August. Several other fire were also burning in California, and the state’s Yosemite national park was closed to visitors on Thursday (9 August).
The Mendocino Winegrowers reported that the fire in their area quickly moved east, keeping Mendocino County vineyards and wineries out of harm’s way. The smoke, too, has blown away in recent days, resulting in clear skies.
But at least a couple of Mendocino County wineries were issued evacuation orders. Cindy DeVries, chief operating officer for Fetzer Vineyards, said the winery staff evacuated from July 27-31, although the fire never reached their property.
Lake County vineyards received the brunt of the smoke. Grower Andy Beckstoffer, who owns significant acreage in both Mendocino County and the up-and-coming Red Hills region of Lake County, said that, on one particularly bad day, he sent his Lake County workers home due to the thickness of the smoke.
Later, when several of his workers were evacuated from their homes in the Lake County area, he put them up at the company’s farm centre. All have since returned home safely.
Overall, Beckstoffer was optimistic, stating, ‘The smoke was really high, and we only had one day when it was down, so that’s all very positive.’ He added that it has since cleared out.
Moreover, the grapes are only in the initial stages of veraison, and it’s believed that the closer the fruit is to ripening, the greater the effects of smoke.
‘We think the probability of smoke damage is very slight for what we know, but we are testing,’ Beckstoffer said.
Testing the fruit will be key in determining the true impacts of the smoke in the coming months, said McGourty, who conceded that there’s no reliable way to predict how affected, if at all, this year’s vintage will be.
‘We don’t really understand the basic kinetics of what causes smoke problems with wine,’ he said. ‘We don’t have real predictive tools to say, “This is going to be a problem” or “No, it’s not.”’
But from his experience, the outlook is good compared to 2008, which McGourty coined, ‘our year from hell’. That year, Mendocino County suffered through roughly 100 fires and the subsequent harvest was a disaster.
‘The place looked like Los Angeles in the 1960s. You couldn’t see 500ft in front of you; it smelled like smoke and tasted like smoke for five to six weeks. This fire has not been like that,’ he said.
Read our coverage of the 2017 California wildfires: Destroyed Signorello winery owner keen to ‘get back in business‘