The 2017 fires do not mean the end of Northern California’s wine country

The ongoing fires in Northern California’s wine country are tragic beyond comprehension and have resulted in a still unknown but already too high number of people losing their lives, thousands of families losing their homes and hundreds of businesses being burned to the ground or otherwise affected. Countless animals and forests have also been decimated.

Those directly affected by these unprecedented events are transitioning from frantic survival mode to grief-stricken cleanup. Emotions remain raw, and a strange amalgam of fear and anxiety have blended with the uncertainty of the future in a manner that seems unbearable at times. It is true that unfathomable challenges exist, but don’t believe those who predict Armageddon for the 2017 vintage or wine country.

2017 vintage

Up until July the 2017 vintage looked to be the vintage of the decade: A long, slow and warm growing season fed by plenty of groundwater from a wet winter had produced balanced clusters and optimal conditions for flavor and color development. Then one of the biggest heat waves on record hit. The high temperatures lingered in the triple digits for weeks and threatened to sunburn and shrivel the grapes as the vines shut down or slowed their metabolism.

Any of those factors can hurt wine quality, but the vintners responded proactively, many protecting their crops with innovative practices such as shading the grape clusters with cloth and keeping the plants hydrated at night.

“Over the last few years we’ve really learned how to deal with excessive heat,” said Garrett Buckland, president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association. “We came out of this year’s heat wave even better than I expected.”

The ultra-high temperatures also caused a reduction in visitors to wine country, with many tourists and locals opting to forgo the squelching heat and either stay indoors or head someplace cooler. Meanwhile, all of the vegetation produced by the wet winter had become dry and brittle.

By late September, a cooling trend materialized, and just in time. Harvest is historically the busiest time for the majority of local businesses, with many tasting rooms and restaurants making upward of a quarter of their yearly revenue at that time. There was an audible sigh of relief as most of the grapes were harvested, safely being fermented or aged in wineries, and the wines tasting exceptionally delicious. Restaurants and hotels became full of tourists again, and everything was back to normal.

The 2017 fires

Those earlier heat waves were nothing compared to the raging fires that began in the area on Sunday night, Oct. 8. Their impact on the wine and food industry is and will remain significant, but speaking with many who lost nearly everything provides some perspective.

“I got a call telling me about a fire near my home,” said Marshall Hayman, who grew up in and works in Calistoga. “I lived close to Bennett Lane (near the onset of the Tubbs Fire), and when I went outside there was a strong glow and sparks coming from over the crest of the hill.”

He went back inside, grabbed his cat and a few items — wallet, laptop, phone charger and a backpack — and headed to his car. Within only a couple of minutes, the fire had nearly reached his house, the flames racing at nearly 150 miles per hour according to some reports, the flying embers starting new fires, each scorching everything in its path.

“There were little fires sparking up everywhere, and the main fire was moving so fast and the smoke was so thick that it was crazy,” Hayman said. “I jumped in my car and started to head down my driveway when two Calistoga PD came flying up and told me to evacuate.”

The police continued up the road into the inferno while Hayman made it safely out.

“It all went so fast,” said Hayman. “When I looked back at my call log it was only about six minutes from that first call to when I was driving out making another call. When they let me back in, I went up there and everything is gone. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next — I am taking things one day at a time and the whole community has been so supportive.”

Harrowing sagas unfortunately are not uncommon.

“Twelve of our employees lost their homes, and like so many others that have been affected, it’s truly devastating,” said Corey Beck, executive vice president of the Francis Coppola Winery. “Our wineries (in both Napa and Sonoma) made it through the fires, so we were fortunate in that way. We’re doing everything we can for our employees and community at this time.”

“One of our team lost her home,” said Dick Grace, owner of Grace Family wines. “She and her family will be living in our guest house. So many have been affected.”

Power and smoke taint

The number of affected businesses continues to climb, with a limited number of wineries having outright total loss of all structures and many others having varying levels of damage. One impact on all wineries and restaurants was from days without power. This made operations tough in terms of keeping the refrigerator systems active, allowing consistent temperatures for food and for any wine still fermenting. Wineries also worry about the impact of smoke-tainted wines.

“We were not damaged by the fire directly, but everyone in the valley is dealing with the aftermath,” said Kevin Morrisey, winemaker at Ehlers Estate winery. “Smoke taint, no power, people losing their homes — it’s having an impact, and we’ll be dealing with this for a long time.”

Although most of the grapes in Napa and Sonoma were harvested before the fires, there was an estimated 10 to 30 percent of the cabernet sauvignon still out on the vines as of earlier this week.

“Wines in tank should be fine,” said Roger Boulton, professor of enology in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. “And for the grapes still on the vines, there are some tools that might be useful in combating smoke taint.”

Some of these tools include keeping pressed lots separate, employing new filtering techniques, using flash détente, and making sure to treat the color-extraction process as gently and as quickly as possible.

Impact on restaurants

One of the largest providers of employment in wine country, besides the wine industry, is the food industry. Most restaurants were closed for nearly a week, which has a broad impact. Some restaurants had business-interruption insurance, a few with lost wages provisions that pay employees during disasters, with some plans even paying out estimated tip proceeds for the waitstaff. However, not all businesses have this type of insurance. And because the evacuation orders have been lifted and some plans require property damage, the payouts are often complicated and inadequate.

Between Healdsburg Bar and Grill and St. Helena’s Two Birds/One Stone (TBOS), chef owner Douglas Keane reports that three employees lost their homes.

“Three lost homes but no one was injured,” Keane said. “We got back in three days ago to TBOS and fired up the kitchen and through our partnership with Jackson Family Wines figured out how to get the food to the first responders. It was nice teamwork, and seeing the community come together was impressive. I actually think this might force an affordable-housing discussion for industry workers in both Napa and Sonoma.”

“Obviously we are very shaken up, but we must all move forward and everything has perspective now, that’s for sure, said Bettina Rouas, owner of Angele Restaurant & Bar on Napa’s waterfront. “I thank all of my lucky stars and angels.”

Rouas tried to remain open every day, but it became too hard with staff evacuated and intermittent power. They were able to reopen last Saturday, but business has been slow.

“None of our staff lost their homes, but many of our customers have,” Rouas said. “This has been a humbling experience that has changed the way I think and view things now. We have been making food for the shelters and feeding the first responders. This will be a long road, but my staff and I are going to stay strong and be united. Most of our customers feel at home with us. And I am proud to be open for them.”

Beyond the people, wine and food, thousands of acres of wilderness have been decimated and many animals have also been affected.

“I live up in Soda Springs (near Atlas Peak in Napa) and I only had time to grab my three cats and a bag of clothes, said Julia Orr, communications manager for Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch (JARR). “We are the ones that save animals for other people and here I was, the one that needed saving.”

Although, as she drove away, it looked like her house was engulfed in flames, she later learned that it had survived the fire and was able to return home. 

Since the fires started, JARR, along with other animal rescue organizations such as Calistoga’s Sunrise Horse Rescue, have rescued and relocated pets, livestock, including hundreds of llamas, cows, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, chickens, ducks, cats and dogs.

What’s next

It is understandable to feel overwhelmed. And because of the intensity and breadth of trauma and destruction, it will take years to bounce back. To be sure, some businesses will be unable to maintain through this shock and will close, move or sell. There will be individuals who find it impossible to live with even less housing stock available, which tends to send rents and prices higher. It will also be tempting for some landlords to take advantage of these predicaments and raise prices.

But there are others who, instead of taking advantage, are providing relief. Many people are already planning to come back to the area to vacation and help support the community. For example, the Napa Valley Film Festival will still be held Nov. 8-12 and is donating 10 percent of all pass sales to the Napa Valley Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund. The Napa Valley Vintners are active, as are the Grapegrowers, UpValley Family Centers and many others. As many of the ubiquitous signs and banners plastered in shop windows and along roads proclaim, “There’s more love in the air than smoke,” and apparently this sentiment extends beyond the confines of this region.

Thick skins

Early Wednesday morning, before sunrise, I found numerous picking crews hard at work bringing in bins of grapes in the cold, still smoky night air. When I asked the crew boss about the quality of the fruit, he smiled.

“We’re a little light this year, but the quality is muy bien,” he said.

“And what about the impact of the fires on the grapes?” I asked.

He chewed his lip for a moment and then briefly glanced toward a few still-glowing small fires on the western hills. I followed his gaze as he turned and looked toward the crews busily picking grapes, most of them wearing masks over their mouths and noses. When he turned back his expression was full of emotion but his eyes were resolute.

“These grapes are tough,” he said thrusting out a cluster of cabernet grapes as evidence. “They have thick skins — just like us.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, October 2017