Everything We Know About the California Fires and What They Mean for Wineries
California is in the midst of another “unimaginable” repeat of the fires that swept through Napa and Sonoma three years ago in late 2017 and 2019. The latest fires first broke out at 8:58 a.m. on Monday, August 17, in the eastern hills above Napa after a lightning strike ignited a blaze north of Lake Hennessey. By 4:32 p.m., that fire had grown to 2,400 acres, and unfavorable conditions were making things worse. By nightfall, residents in the remote areas around the lake had to evacuate, and one winery was already being threatened: the historic Nichelini Winery on Sage Canyon Road. But the fire did not prevail —CalFire crews successfully held the fires back, even though flames came within feet of the winery.
At the same time, other lightning strikes sparked fires around Lake Berryessa, just north and east of Hennessey, and still more ignited blazes along the California coastline in Point Reyes, south of San Francisco in Santa Cruz, and in other areas throughout California. (Over 12,000 instances of lightning during this period were noted around the Bay Area.) By the evening of Tuesday, August 18, fires in Napa and Sonoma were actively burning 32,000 acres with zero containment. And for local residents and business owners, not nearly enough information was available about how fast the fires were burning, where exactly they were burning, and how the weather was impacting efforts to battle the blazes.
I live in Marin County, so I jumped in my car and started driving around to see what I could see. That proved to be mostly smoke, which grew heavier in Sonoma and as thick as pea soup in parts of Napa Valley. Tall columns of smoke rising into the upper atmosphere like mushroom clouds were visible from practically all parts of the Bay Area. The Napa Valley Vintners organization resorted to Twitter to try and get more details from CalFire: “We have hundreds of homes up there that aren't getting updates. And we need air support. We have winemakers texting us from up there who don't have information!”
The following day, the Hennessey fire merged with five others and was burning over 100,000 acres, while another 20,000 burned in Sonoma and Lake Counties, and eight separate fires became the LNU Lightning Complex (#LNULightningComplex). Come Thursday, 215,000 acres were burning, 480 structures had been destroyed, four people had died, and containment was still at zero percent. Yet phone calls, texts, and emails with growers and wineries in Napa and Sonoma clarified that while the fires were worrisome, to say the least, they had not resulted in much damage; good news in a dark time.
Winemaker Rob Hunt of Anderson’s Conn Valley, which is located about three miles from the Hennessey fire, notes that they have not so far been directly affected, “though we are in the evacuation alert area so that could impact winery work.” He added, “Despite the current conditions, I expect many of us, myself included, to work tirelessly to pull out as much as we can this harvest. I am grateful to everyone in the emergency services working the fires right now, and I hope we get out of this pattern next year.”
Last Thursday, August 20, vintners on Howell Mountain around the towns of Angwin and Deer Park received evacuation warnings. Robert Foley of Robert Foley Vineyards, whose winery, caves, and estate vines are all in remote, heavily-wooded areas beyond Angwin on Howell Mountain, was among those forced to evacuate. But as of today, August 24, Foley has reported that none of his vineyards had been affected. Asked if he was worried about the smoke, Foley said, “Of course, we’ll be vigilant, and if there is smoke taint in any lots of wine, they will not be bottled,” he said, and added that even as periods of intense smoke were coming and going, he didn’t feel that it was time to harvest. The flavor and seed maturity in the grapes that he looks for, he explained, wasn’t there yet. He would wait. “You can fix high sugar or high alcohol in wine,” he explained, “but you can’t fix immature flavor.”
“There’s always a concern about smoke taint when it’s around,” says Jesse Fox of Amici Cellars in Calistoga. “But wind direction and flow are most important. The mornings have been crystal clear and cool, and that prevents the smoke from settling low. The smoke is staying in the upper atmosphere and not falling on grapes,” a crucial consideration as harvest continues with the fires still uncontained.
“Although it seems the sky is falling, vineyard managers and winemakers have been through this rodeo before,” Mike Smith of Myriad Cellars, Quivet Cellars, and Ancillary Cellars says. “We have learned tactics to navigate these challenges in both the vineyard and the winery.” Echoing other winemakers who point out that most reds are through veraison, or the point when red grapes begin to take on color, they’re “not affected as much by smoke. We've been very lucky and can even see stars in the sky all night from St. Helena.”
In Sonoma, mandatory evacuations were established for anyone west of Westside Road. Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, says, “Luckily, most of the fire has stayed in rugged hillsides and forests.” She adds that first responders believe vineyards are “going to help slow and stop the fires,” if burning continues toward lower terrain. Kruse adds that the majority of Sonoma County’s vineyards are outside of the evacuation area, “and we are all just sending support and cheering on our incredible first responders who are on the front lines.” In regard to farmworkers who may have been evacuated or are unable to work, Kruse says they’ve re-opened the farmworker resiliency fund through the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, which assists with housing, food, supplies, and financial assistance.
DuMOL winemaker Andy Smith spoke from one of the Sonoma vineyards he works with. “This has been the most dramatic ten days in a harvest I can remember. The heat spike was very dramatic, but it didn’t really do any damage and didn’t elevate the ripeness suddenly as heat spikes in the past have,” he explained. “Two days of really intense humidity followed, but the vines came through that almost completely unblemished, too.” While he harvested his Pinot grapes a day or two earlier than he might have preferred, Smith says, “We have lower quantities, but the quality is exceptional.”
Santa Cruz Mountains
Roughly 75 miles south of San Francisco in Santa Cruz, the #CZULightningComplex fire is still burning and wreaking havoc on communities about an hour southwest of San Jose.
At Big Basin Vineyards, situated on a 150-acre estate on a ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains just outside the town of Boulder Creek, California, owner Bradley Brown lost the home he spent three years building, yet his winery, roughly 900 feet away, miraculously remains intact. Reached by phone, Brown was actually more concerned about the safety of Blake Yarger, his winemaker, as well as a neighbor whose heavy equipment business and home were both incinerated. “My heart is really going out to them right now,” said Brown. “The number of homes lost is mind-boggling.”
Brown added, “The fire burned completely over our estate. I’m hopeful the winery is staying reasonably cool because our 2019 vintage is still in barrel and concrete tanks. It’s been a week since the power went out.” Support from other winemakers from Santa Cruz down to Paso Robles is pouring in, though, offering grapes to help with the 2020 harvest; Brown says his own crop is completely lost. “It’s been heartening to see out the community stepping up to help other people right now. And we’ll be in pretty good shape if we can get a generator to the winery.”
Ten miles south in the Bonny Doon region of the Ben Lomond Mountain AVA, the fire line is holding at Beauregard Winery as of 12:30 p.m. today, August 24. Mark Bright, hospitality and wine director for Saison Hospitality makes Saison Wines there, working with Ryan Beauregard. “Ryan and his neighbors are attacking spot fires themselves,” Bright said over the phone, but added that Beauregard’s winery and home were safe so far. Unfortunately, the future is uncertain as the #CZULightningComplex fire is still only 13% contained, currently burning on 78,000 acres and continuing to threaten homes and communities in the area.
Late on the 24th, Heidi Nigen, Director of Marketing for Ridge Winery, reported that “both our Monte Bello winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains and our Lytton Springs winery in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County have been threatened by fires. But last night was a good night. No lighting strikes and a small amount of rain was the best possible outcome. The result is that both the Sonoma County and Santa Cruz Mountains fires had reduced activity last night as cool temps, a bit of rain, and high humidity significantly slowed their growth.”
She added, “The areas of active burn for both fires are now well away from both of our wineries. With the passing of this weather front, we are hopeful that the firefighters should now be able to bring both of these fires under control. But until then we will remain on high alert.”
What Happens Next
High alert is standard operating procedure right now for anyone harvesting wine grapes in California wine country. And it’s far too early to tell how exactly—or even if—these fires will impact the 2020 vintage. The growing season so far has been a mild one, the heat spikes immediately before the fires were short enough not to have any real impact, and the wines that will appear in the market a few years from now are certainly poised for high quality. If wind and weather conditions continue to keep the smoke from settling, the 2020 vintage may well be unscathed—much as the 2017 vintage effectively was, despite dire warnings at the time of the fires.
But as for the emotional impact, with more than 775,000 acres currently burning across Northern California, I can say as a California resident that it feels horribly complacent to keep saying that this is just “the new normal.” And for those experiencing post-traumatic stress from all the fires over the last few years, this period offers a very unwelcome kind of routine—compounded by the added burden of the Covid-19 pandemic. For residents of wine country, spending the workday pausing every half-hour to check if fires are getting close—so close that it might be time to fold up the laptop, grab the emergency bag, and put up an out of office alert—offers little more than an exhausting and stressful start to harvest.