By Elin McCoy
Although still burning, the largest fires that have devastated California wine country are mostly contained, and winemakers, winery owners, and growers began taking stock this week of what they have—and haven’t—lost.
The numbers are numbing: at least 42 dead, nearly 100,000 evacuated, more than 5,700 homes, businesses, and wineries destroyed or damaged, more than 200,000 acres burned in total, and many vineyards singed and torched, according to an Oct. 17 announcement by CalFire, the state department of forestry and fire protection.
If you’re a wine lover, you know the people and places behind these numbers. The wineries include Signorello Estate, Paradise Ridge, Frey Vineyards, White Rock Vineyards, Roy Estate, Mayacamas, Pulido-Walker, Michael Mondavi Family Estate, and more that make the reds and whites you love to drink. As of now, 22 wineries have been damaged in northern California, with effects ranging from lost buildings to burned vines and ruined wine product.
Tom Pagano, a wine expert and account executive at global insurance broker Aon said overall damage could be in the $5 billion to $6 billion range and maybe worse. “It will take at least a couple of months to assess,” he said in a phone interview. “And it may be years before we know the final numbers.” The wine industry generates about $26 billion annually for Napa and Sonoma, according to the most recent reports from vintners’ groups.
Yet despite the horrific human toll and massive damage, early signs indicate that northern California’s wine industry isn’t ruined beyond repair and that much of its 2017 business can be rescued.
The Extent of the Damage
Ray Signorello’s eponymous estate on Napa’s Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District was one of the hardest hit by the fast-moving Atlas Fire. The main winery building and much of the winemaking equipment, the handsome tasting room, and his family residence went down in flames more than a week ago and are now rubble. The hillside and 100-year-old oaks behind it all are black and scorched, although the barrel cellar survived. He says he’ll rebuild, and he has already leased office space for his team in the nearby city of Napa.
Amazingly, the 28-year-old vines on his 42-acre vineyard are fine. “If I’d lost the vineyard,” he said, “I’d be out of business.” Signorello’s grapes had already been picked and pressed, so his 2017 wine was in tanks outside on the crushpad, ready to be put into barrels. Inexplicably, miraculously, he says, the fire went around them, but the winemaker hasn’t yet been able to test the wine in the tanks for heat damage.
Much of the destruction in the region was winery buildings and owner residences. In Sonoma, at Paradise Ridge winery, the building, the tasting room, and events center were completely gutted by fire. Backbone winery in Mendocino burned to the ground along with its library of wines made over the past five years. Homes, barns, and sheds at Napa’s White Rock vineyards are gone, along with hundreds of shattered bottles of wine.
“Vineyards survive better than buildings,” says Sam Coturri of Sonoma winery Sixteen 600 in the Moon Mountain district, “Vines are full of moisture and act as firebreaks.”
His father Phil runs Enterprise Vineyards, which manages some 600 acres of organic and biodynamic vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. “Eighty-five percent of our clients experienced at least some damage,” Sam Coturri said. “In mountain vineyards, only 70 percent of the grapes had been picked, but we couldn’t get to them.” Now they’re trying to finish the job, as best they can, discarding heat-shriveled grapes from burned vines that can’t be made into wine. The ones that aren’t, said Coturri, “tasted delicious.”
It’s hard to know how many vineyards have burned. Many wineries have reported losing at least some vines to flames; the president of Sonoma’s new Fountaingrove District Winegrowers Association released a statement that eight vineyards totaling 90 acres of vines are known to be lost so far. Others haven’t yet been able to assess damage.
On Mt. Veeder, fire burned through Sky Vineyards’ 14 acres of zinfandel and syrah planted at an elevation of 2,100 feet, though its winery survived.
The Atlas Peak fire scorched the organic vineyard that Michael Mondavi Family Estate uses for its Animo cuvée. The 2017 crop is a total loss. Part of the 16-acre Pulido-Walker estate vineyard burned (as well as the home), the vine leaves browned to a crisp.
Even if vines rebound in the spring, those burned or heat-damaged may regrow weaker and eventually have to be replaced.
Racing to Beat the Fires
For some other wineries, such as VinRoc on Atlas Peak, underground cave systems saved wines aging in barrels and bottles.
This is the tail end of harvest season, and many got through by sharing information, equipment, and space. Winemaker Julien Fayard recounts that Covert Estate in Napa’s Coombsville district just east of the city of Napa had power, while neighbors Caldwell Vineyards and Italics didn’t. As the fires burned elsewhere, they crushed their grapes in Covert’s underground cave, using filters and air scrubbers flown in from Georgia to insure that the air was safe to breathe despite carbon dioxide given off from fermenting wine.
Owners and employees were often the frontline fire defense. At Sonoma’s Scribe winery, Van de Kamp vineyard, Matthiasson, and others, they shoveled dirt onto burning embers and stamped out small fires before they could increase.
And much was luck. On Mt. Veeder, Mayacamas lost its new tasting room, but not the stone winery built in 1889. Winemaker Aaron Pott learned his Mt. Veeder home and vineyards were safe only after a week of anxiety in which he thought all was gone. In Sonoma, screenwriter Robert Kamen of Kamen estate, who lost his vineyard to fire in 1996, escaped this time.
Damage From Heat and Smoke
One worry is the possibility of smoke-taint damage, especially for red wines, where the juice remains in contact with the grape skins. Grapes still on the vine can passively absorb smoke that can give wines an ashy taste. Rinsing them isn’t necessarily enough.
Fortunately, about 90 percent of valley-floor grapes had already been harvested and are unaffected. Winemakers finishing their harvest now are testing for taint and planning to declassify whatever doesn’t measure up.
If vines were burned, it’s a different story. Replanting costs about $25,000 to $75,000 an acre, and it takes at least five years before cabernet grapes can produce high-quality wine, plus another two before that wine can be sold. That’s seven years before a winery can make money on that acreage again.
Destruction hit rich and poor alike, but the hardest-hit wineries are family enterprises. Pagano, the wine insurer, fears that such small businesses may not have enough coverage to recoup losses. Insurance covers buildings, equipment, wine stored in the winery, and grapes that haven’t been harvested, but not the vines.
The real worry for winemakers is the effect on tourism. Wineries depend on sales in their tasting rooms, and fall is one of the most lucrative seasons for the region’s great restaurants and hotels.
Many are reopening next week, and posh Meadowood resort reopens Friday. (Sadly, Willi’s Wine Bar south of Healdsburg, one of my favorite spots to sip and savor in Sonoma County, is no more.)
The wine community is already rallying to help rebuild. Giant Modesto-based winery E. & J. Gallo announced a donation of $1 million to wildfire relief, while the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is contributing $1 per bottle of wine sold from 50 wineries during October. Even the Oakland Raiders have kicked in $1 million.
There are plenty of ways for wine lovers to pitch in. GoFundMe has dozens of individual and charity appeals. The restaurants in the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, for example, plan to pour a California wine by the glass at each location and donate a portion of the proceeds.
And next week a group of winemakers and sommeliers (Winemakers & Sommeliers for California Wildfire Relief, www.wscwr.com), which includes New York’s Patrick Cappiello of Rebelle and winemakers Raj Parr, Pax Mahle, and others, will host fundraising events in San Francisco and New York. Collectors, sommeliers, and distributors are donating super-high-end wines to be sold to benefit several organizations.
The simplest way to contribute? Buy a bottle of northern California wine. Then open it, pour a glass, and raise it to the wine country’s recovery.