Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Wine Country Wildfires Leave Region’s Wineries Reeling

The effects of the wildfires burning in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties on California’s $58 billion wine industry may not be felt for years, and the number of estates damaged or totally destroyed in the region has topped 22.

NAPA, Calif. (CN) – “This is like our Super Bowl,” Roscoe said while eating a leisurely lunch at the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa this week. Normally, this is the time of year when people like him who earn their living in the wine business are frantically busy, catering to the scores of tourists who pour into California’s Wine Country in September and October.

California’s wine industry is worth $58 billion dollars, dominating the U.S. market. Most of the industry is centered in Sonoma and Napa counties, where more than 400 wineries dot the hilly landscape and picturesque vineyards carpet the valley floors.

These pastoral scenes became a raging inferno last week as a series of wildfires ripped through the region, burning more than 120,000 acres in Wine Country alone and razing some of the world’s most iconic wineries.

VinRoc Winery, on Atlas Peak, was completely destroyed, as the Atlas Fire razed everything but the wine cave.

Nearby Sill Family Vineyards also burned to the ground, though most of its vines emerged from the fire unscathed. Owner Igor Sill told the Napa Valley Register, “We will build as soon as we are able to return.”

Signorello Vineyard Estates, with its patio boasting expansive views of Napa’s vine-covered hills, is mostly gone, as is Helena View Johnston Vineyards in Calistoga. Hagafen Cellars, the first kosher winery in the Napa region, lost an acre of its vineyards. And White Rock Vineyards suffered severe damage to the winery, though most of its vineyards remain intact.

“They make such elegant wines,” said Roscoe, who didn’t want to provide his last name because he did not have permission to talk on behalf the winery he works for – which was spared by the fire.

The damage is far worse in Sonoma. Ahh Winery in Glen Ellen lost its building and water system, though its owner said two years of inventory is safe. The Ancient Oak Cellars in the Russian River Valley lost its buildings but also believes its wine and vineyards are safe.

“I’m very sad to report that our house, two big beautiful redwood barns, gorgeous tasting counter, etc, etc are gone,” the winery wrote Tuesday on Facebook.

The Tubbs Fire completely destroyed the Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, though the owners said its estate vineyards had survived and a tasting room remains open at its Kenwood property.

“It is too early to estimate the economic impact of the fires on the Napa Valley wine industry,” said Patty McGaughy, a spokeswoman for the area’s trade association Napa Valley Vintners.

About 20 association members sustained some degree of damage due to the fires, the group said.

“Complicating matters is the fact that it is harvest season in Napa Valley,” McGaughy said. “However, we estimate that 90 percent of the grapes were picked before the fires started on Oct. 8.”

Many winemakers expressed gratitude that the fire, while devastating, came after most of the grapes have been picked.

“Given how late it is in the season, the concern of smoke taint on the grapes currently on the vine is low,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers Association. “This assessment would be much different had the fires occurred in late July or early August.”

Thin-skinned grapes like pinot noir are susceptible to smoke taint, which can ruin the delicate fruit and severely impinge the economic output of vintners who grow the temperamental varietal. Pinot noir is usually harvested in September through early October.

Chardonnay is also a late varietal, with harvesting going on even as wildfires raged.

“Some chardonnay, likely the last to be picked in Sonoma County this year, was harvested this morning in the Russian River Valley and I am pleased to report the grapes were of excellent quality and were able to get to a winery in Napa Valley,” Kruse said last Monday.

Most of the grapes remaining on the vine into October are cabernet sauvignon, perhaps the most famous and prevalent variety in the Napa and Sonoma region.

While some winemakers expressed concern about the possibility of smoke taint, cabernet sauvignon is a thick-skinned and hardy varietal, and may prove resilient to layers of smoke.

If not, ruined grapes can always be used for vinegar.

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