Sonoma wineries fight perceptions as well as wildfires

Many tasting rooms have reopened in northern Sonoma County following the recent Kincade fire, as wineries seek to adapt to wildfire risks without putting off visitors.

Mass evacuations in northern Sonoma County affected winemakers alongside other residents as firefighters battled to protect lives and property by containing the Kincade fire in the Geyserville area at the end of October.

Soda Rock Winery has described the ‘tremendous heartbreak’ of losing its winery building in Alexander Valley, northeast of Healdsburg, although all staff members were safe and much of its wine stocks were stored elsewhere.

While the immediate concern was naturally the safety of people and communities, as 93mph winds fanned flames at what witnesses described as an alarmingly fast pace, many Sonoma wineries have also been keen to put the situation in context.

‘Everybody is back open,’ said Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners.

Loss of visitors is now one of the main concerns in a wine region that counts tourism as a big part of its business.

Haney was elsewhere in the US when the fire started. ‘I saw the perceptions of people,’ he said. ‘The evacuation zone was huge, and rightly so, but people saw that.’

Jordan Winery, which had a near-miss in the Kincade fire, said this week that less than 7% of Sonoma County was scorched by the fire and that two out of 50 Alexander Valley wineries were destroyed.

‘Our local restaurants, hotels, wineries and shops need tourists to return,’ it said.

Haney said that 95% of grapes in the area had already been harvested, which he believes bodes well for a 2019 vintage that had enjoyed almost picture-perfect growing season in many cases.

‘We’re working hard to tell everybody that things are fine,’ said Haney.

But, there is also worry about the future.

Memories of the 2017 Tubbs fire, which claimed lives as well as thousands of homes, are still fresh in this part of northern California.

No one wants wildfires to become the new normal, but Haney said that ‘it’s a concern for people with two fires in three years’.

Climate change has not been an immediate debate for those affected by the Kincade fire, but ‘you will see that discussion coming up for sure’, Haney said.

He said that ‘big and small wineries are doing proactive things’ to deal with risk.

This has included buying back-up generators to deal with unplanned and planned power outages in the cellar.

Growing numbers are investigating solar energy and more producers have been developing communication strategies for staff and customers, Haney said.

Sonoma County Vintners has organised a free seminar on insurance policies for wineries – to take place next week. A particular concern has been ‘how to evaluate loss’, he said.

Wineries have also understood more about fire prevention.

‘Vineyards act as a firebreak,’ said Haney. ‘We’ve seen that from the air and from the ground – where a fire has gone right up to a vineyard and stopped.

‘Some winemakers put expensive equipment, such as tractors, in the middle of vineyards,’ said Haney.

Jordan Winery added, ‘The only vine damages reported from our grape growers were one newly planted hillside vineyard, which wasn’t old enough to survive a fire.’

However, one of the biggest factors in preventing damage has been the efforts of thousands of firefighters, including volunteers.

And many wineries from all over northern Sonoma County offered thanks and praise to fire crews.

Now, the best thing people can do to help is ‘buy the wines’, said Haney.