California is battling two of the largest wildfires in its recorded history—and they’ve struck wine country earlier than previous blazes.

By Mike Pomranz
August 24, 2020
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Burned wine bottles sit amidst charred remains at La Borgata Winery during the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California on August 23, 2020.
JOSH EDELSON / Contributor/Getty Images

In recent years, large wildfires have become an unfortunately inevitable part of California winemaking. In 2017, blazes tore through both Napa and Sonoma Counties (as well as others). And though the deadly 2018 Camp Fire was outside of wine country, in 2019, the Kincade Fire caused havoc back in Sonoma. Sadly, this year, Northern California is once again battling some of the largest wildfires on record—and the effect could be different: Whereas the fires above all started no earlier than October, toward the end of the harvest season, the 2020 fires are arriving just as grape picking is getting started.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the state is currently facing the second and third largest fires since recordkeeping began back in 1932. As of this morning, the LNU Lightning Complex is burning across 350,030 acres in Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Yolo, and Solano Counties. Meanwhile, the slightly smaller (but sill massive) SCU Lightning Complex fire encompasses 347,196 acres across Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin Counties. The two fires are just 22 percent and 10 percent contained respectively. And across both fires, four fatalities and eight injuries are currently confirmed by the department.

Looking specifically at the LNU Lightning Complex—which will have the biggest impact on the wine industry—871 structures have been destroyed and an additional 234 have been damaged, and large swaths of the area are under evacuation orders or warnings. Meanwhile, Cal Fire lists over two dozen other active incidents, and these smaller fires can also have big impacts on winemakers. For instance, the CZU Lightning Complex in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties has destroyed over 160 structures—including, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the home of San Cruz Mountain’s winemaker Bradley Brown. Thankfully, his winery—Big Basin Vineyards—was spared.

All along, Cal Fire had predicted “above-normal large fire potential” due to “below-normal precipitation” in Northern California this year, but such massive fires burning at once is unprecedented. “We simply haven’t seen anything like this in many, many years,” Governor Gavin Newsom stated.

Winemakers planning to harvest are now faced with tough questions: Is it safe to proceed, and, if so, when? If the grapes still aren’t perfectly ripe, a vineyard may have to weigh the options of picking slightly earlier than they would like or risk the fruit being damaged entirely. Not to mention that many living in the area have homes that are also at risk, and—oh yeah—that whole pandemic thing is still happening.

“The fires this year come at a completely different time than the disastrous 2017 fires—at the very start of harvest, rather than towards the end; and also affecting regions like the Santa Cruz Mountains, which were spared during 2017,” Food & Wine Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle explains. “The consequences can’t be known yet, but the timing of these fires definitely raises the specter of pervasive smoke affecting grapes that are still on the vines, in addition to actual damage from the fires themselves. Add to that the fact that wineries are having to deal with COVID-related issues regarding the safety of their picking crews and winery staff, and you’ve got the potential of a tremendously difficult harvest season; which, realistically, is only just beginning.”

In fact, things could continue to get worse even in the short term. The National Weather Service has predicted that more high temperatures and wind gusts are expected today, potentially leading to “dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior,” according to the Guardian. “We are definitely far from getting these fires handled,” Shana Jones, chief for Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit, was quoted as stating during a news conference yesterday. “We are not out of the woods by far.”

But for now, Jeremy Kreck, owner/winemaker at Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery and a board member of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, had a positive outlook for his neck of Sonoma County. "Even though it's still August, it is a very early year in terms of grape maturity," he told me via email between sleeping at his winery to keep watch on the property. "There have been a considerable amount of whites already harvested. I don't have any way of getting a percentage or other numbers but I have seen harvesters, crews, and trucks working in earnest for at least two weeks now. Right now I am thankful that there are so many resources and firefighters on scene and continuing to come in from around the state... I'd say by now we are a battle hardened bunch that are overall, quite prepared. Many wineries have the capability of self-sufficient operations with generators in place. Most harvest workers have been through this before and are ready and willing to get the job done. The grapes keep ripening and the show must go on."

Kreck then added a familiar refrain we've heard this year: "If any wine lovers wanted to help, the best thing they could do is to order wine directly from the wineries! The vast majority of Dry Creek Valley wineries are very small and family owned. Their wines are not found in most stores, rather they rely on visitation and direct sales. With the pandemic, tourism is way down, so this is a double whammy in a sense."

Additionally, in a statement issued today, the Wine Institute—which advocates for the entire California Wine Industry—also struck an optimistic tone. "While it is a fluid situation, and fires are near vineyards in some areas, wineries and vineyards have escaped fire damage at this writing, with the exception of one winery in Solano County. In past years, vineyards have acted as natural firebreaks," the group wrote. "We extend our concern and support for the safety of the amazing first responders and those who have been evacuated."

Karissa L. Kruse—president of Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director for the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation—added that, for now, "everyone’s focus is on trying to contain the fire so it is too early to know if there will be any impact on the grape harvest."  However, she also pointed to another potential issue that goes beyond making wine.

"Our other primary concern is our farmworkers who may have been evacuated or not able to work," Kruse told me via email. "So just as we did following the 2017 and 2019 fires, we have re-opened our farmworker resiliency fund through the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. This fund supported more than 1,500 farmworker and their families impacted by wildfires in Sonoma County by assisting with the purchase of trailers, providing rent support and offering other financial assistance toward new and/or temporary housing, supplementing lost wages, and providing gift cards to purchase new household items, food and supplies. We already had our first application within 12 hours."