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Fire Menaces Napa County Wineries

Pope Valley blaze closes roads, forces evacuations

by Jane Firstenfeld
The Butts Canyon Fire that started in Pope Valley on Monday afternoon has grown to 4,300 acres. Photo credit: Scott Brown/James Creek Vineyards

Napa, Calif.—In the remote, northeast corner of Napa County, an early summer wildfire has forced hundreds of residents to evacuate as it consumed some 4,300 acres of landscape and several structures. Named for a local road, the so-called “Butts Canyon Fire” erupted suddenly Monday afternoon in the Pope Valley area, near the Lake County border.

The fire’s cause has not been determined, although heat may have been a contributor: On Sunday local temperatures soared to 112°F, and vegetation is prematurely tinder-dry. More than 1,000 firefighters are currently battling the blaze, which CalFire reported was 30% contained.

Wines & Vines spoke with Diana Hawkins, owner of Pope Valley Winery. She runs the 5,000-8,000 case Pope Valley Winery with her husband and her winemaker brother, David Eakle. The winery was founded in 1897, and the family farms 120 acres of vineyards.

Hawkins’ husband works for CalFire, which is on the front lines. “The last thing I want to do is to hinder the fire crews. Our staff lives around here as well. First and foremost, we want people to be safe.”

Selling some 90% of production through the tasting room, Pope Valley was anticipating a big “pouring weekend” for the Fourth of July holiday. Now, Hawkins said, “I don’t know if we’ll open. We’re trying to get a game plan together.”

Guenoc Winery is not technically in Pope Valley, but its Lake County address is on Butts Canyon Road. This historic property, now owned by the Foley Family, has 400 vineyard acres and produces 200,000 cases annually. Although the road was closed to traffic in front of the entrance, the tasting room is expected to remain open this weekend to intrepid tourists who can make the trip.

Smoky but unscathed
Without a tasting room, 500-case Aetna Springs Winery in Pope Valley was not asked to evacuate, and neither the winery nor its 8 vineyard acres are currently threatened—but that doesn’t mean the winery is unaffected. Co-owner Sally Kimsey, a.k.a. “Sally the Valley Vet,” said she’s housing some 20 horses and a few dogs and cats during the emergency. Aside from that, she said, “We’re fine.”

At nearby James Creek Vineyards, which produces 750 cases annually, owner Scott Brown said, “At the beginning, some people just north of me were evacuated. It was bad; the smoke was blowing right toward us.

“The smoke is bad today,” he said. “It’s as overcast as a normal summer day in San Francisco.”

Brown, who farms 7 acres of his own vineyards and manages about 1,000 acres for others, disputed the official reports. “I think it has burned way more than 3,200 acres. I can look one way and the other and see it burning for miles.”

What’s ahead?
Fortunately, he said, assuming the smoke dissipates soon it should not affect the crop this year: Since véraison is not yet near, the grapes are not at their most vulnerable state for smoke damage.

Hawkins said, “I know the fire is growing. All available resources are here, and working 24-hour shifts. You can see the smoke, but it’s hard to get a grasp on where it’s going. I have a feeling it’s going to go on for a while.” With fire bombers dropping water and retardants overhead, Hawkins said, “It feels like a war zone. It’s unpredictable.”


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