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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Yearly Reality’ of Wildfires Threatening Viability of Napa Valley Winemakers

The alarming frequency of wildfire has Napa Valley winemakers fretting that small family-owned operators — and big producers alike — could see their dreams vanish.

CALISTOGA, Calif. (CN) — As Dario Sattui sat in his vehicle just outside his office building at the Castello di Amarosa in the Napa Valley near Calistoga, you could be forgiven for thinking all was well. 

The smattering of buildings constructed of stone, reflective of Sattui’s interest in medieval European architecture, were not even slightly tarnished by the heavy smoke in the area. 

The walnut trees flanking the entrance retained their green foliage. 

Just uphill, where the fourth-generation winemaker built a large 120,000-square-foot castle and winery, the Glass Fire spared the castle but completely destroyed one of the winery’s most crucial structures. 

“It was an 11,000-square-foot building that contained about 120,000 bottles of wine worth about $6 million and it’s gone,” Sattui said matter-of-factly. “It had most of our 2020 vintage.”

The wildfire, still ripping through the heart of Wine Country in Napa and Sonoma counties, began on Saturday. In less than a week, it has blackened 56,000 acres, destroyed 220 houses and severely damaged at least 19 wineries, restaurants and resorts. 

“First it was Covid and we got shut down for three months,” Sattui said Thursday. “Then we had a fire three weeks ago and the people stayed away.”

Then came the Glass Fire, which used a forested gully that borders Sattui’s property to make its way up the ridge to where the wine storage facility stood. 

“We sell 100% direct from the winery, so if we don’t get visitors, we don’t sell wine,” Sattui said. 

It’s not only the combination of Covid and the Glass Fire — the region has been battered badly over the past decade. 

The Glass Fire is the second major wildfire to hit the Napa winemaking region in the past three years. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire and the Atlas Fire ripped through the region, destroying entire wineries and tainting some of the fruit still on the vine with smoke. Before that, an earthquake in 2014 near Yountville led to huge losses for some wineries when barrels fell from storage racks and broke due to the shaking.

“We can’t win,” lamented Sattui. 

All the natural disasters have hampered production but also impinged on the number of tourists traveling to the region, hurting not only wineries with a sell-direct business model but also hotels, restaurants, beauty salons and government coffers. 

But the Glass Fire has proved especially destructive. 

The Michelin three-star Restaurant at Meadowood burned to the ground, a fact confirmed by the security guard working the property Thursday. The restaurant, one of the most highly decorated in the Napa region, used produce grown at its regional off-site farm to concoct some of the most celebrated dishes in California. While the owners have pledged to rebuild, at least some outside observers wonder if it would be worth it. 

“As wildfires become more of a yearly reality in the region, it’s hard to say if anyone will ever want to risk opening another restaurant as ambitious as the one at Meadowood, only to receive ashes in return,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho.

Vince Tofanelli also wonders if the traditional Napa Valley lifestyle is sustainable given the new normal of nearly annual destructive wildfires combined with all the other problems. 

“If this keeps happening, I’m not sure if people will stay,” Tofanelli said. 

Tofanelli Vineyards, which Tofanelli owns and operates, barely averted outright disaster. While the 120-year old barn and the family home that his grandparents built in the early 19th century were entirely lost, the grapevines, several of which were planted in the late 1920s, withstood minimal damage. 

“The vines that my grandparents planted 90 years ago will be fine,” he said. “A hundred or so got scorched from the heat, so there will be a few years where they are not as productive, but they will be fine.”

The independent vintner echoed the sentiments of some of his colleagues in feeling a sense of beleaguered resignation to the cycle of fire in the region. 

“We are all getting tired of these ongoing fires,” he said. “It’s like being under siege.”

Tofanelli said climate change is definitely a factor. 

“I’ve been farming this vineyard for 50 years and it keeps getting hotter,” he said. 

While heatwaves have always been a climatic feature of the region, there are more of them every summer and they are longer and more intense, he said. 

The vines have adapted but the drying of the surrounding vegetation renders the region a tinderbox that only requires a spark to go off, Tofanelli said. 

The alarming frequency of fire has Tofanelli fretting that small family-owned operators like himself could get squeezed out. 

“Medium to small wineries are going to get affected more,” he said. “Whether its Covid or the fires or even the wine glut, these things can conspire against the bottom line.”

The big corporations are getting hit too. 

On Spring Mountain, situated in the Mayacamas Mountains that separate the Napa Valley from the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma County, the Newton Winery suffered severe damage from the fire. 

The winery is owned by the luxury brand Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which released a statement Thursday thanking first responders.

“The Newton Estate Winery and Vineyards have been significantly impacted,” the company said. A spokesperson said the company “intends to do whatever it takes to rebuild this truly special place.”

Smoke from the Glass Fire hangs thick in the air around the Napa Fire Department station. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)

Some companies will stay and rebuild. Others will not. 

“I think some people will move out,” said Sattui. “Some people have just had enough.”

But don’t count Sattui among them. Or Tofanelli. 

Sattui said he will begin rebuilding the storage facility he lost, even going so far as to import stone from Europe and paying blacksmiths to forge individual flourishes while customizing the doors and windows to resemble something from a forgotten time. 

“It should take about three years,” Sattui said. 

But for Sattui and the other winemakers hurt by yet another out-of-control wildfire, the hope is that the time before 2017, when large-scale fires were not a biannual event, is not another forgotten time replaced by a new normal. 

The hope these vintners harbor includes a vision of a time and a climate that will make the business of making wine in the Napa Valley profitable, pleasurable and sustainable. 

Follow @@MatthewCRenda
Categories / Business, Regional

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