Trying to Finish Harvest in a Fire Storm

As major wildfires near containment, focus turns to picking last of the 2017 vintage

by Andrew Adams
wine  california fires wildfires wineries vineyards mendocino sonoma Napa smoke taint
A plane dumps fire retardant on the Nuns Fire on Oct. 15. Officials advise not to harvest berries touched by fire retardant.

San Rafael, Calif.—As evacuation orders were lifted in recent days, and much of the smoke from raging wildfires cleared in parts of the North Coast, the focus shifted to harvesting the remaining grapes and picking up the pieces of burnt homes and wineries.

While fires continue to burn in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties and beyond, many evacuated residents of Calistoga, Healdsburg, parts of Napa, Sonoma and elsewhere have been able to return home. Cal Fire reported today that more than 34,000 people still remain evacuated, and, statewide, the fires have burned more than 245,000 acres, destroyed 5,7000 structures and killed 41 people. 

In Napa County, growers and vintners sought to secure permits granting them access to areas closed by the fire to pick grapes.

Napa County agricultural commissioner Greg Clark told Wines & Vines his office had granted 150 permits from 350 requests. Permit requests need to include the name of the company, specific location and what kind of work needs to be done, along with other information. The commissioner’s office is working with fire command and other entities, such as Caltrans and Pacific Gas & Electric, to determine if permits can be approved.

More information on the permit process can be found at countyofnapa.org/AgCom.

The Sonoma County Agricultural Division is also handling requests to access vineyards affected by the fires through a permit process. Growers and vintners can apply for a permit by calling the division’s office at (707) 565-2371 or by visiting the office in person at 133 Aviation Blvd. in Santa Rosa.

Clark said it’s not just firefighting but clearing and repairing roads as well as getting power and other utilities repaired. “In some places that have been opened there have been closures so they can get in there and really do the work they need,” he said.

Based on the number of requests to pick grapes and the amount of harvesting he’s seen in open areas, Clark said he believes there’s still quite a bit of fruit left on the vines, although he is not sure exactly how much.

Cal Fire and the ag commissioner’s office have advised wineries not to pick any grapes that have a dusting of pink fire retardant on them. Clark said firefighters haven’t been dousing many vineyards because they’ve proved to be effective fire breaks, but some retardant may have drifted onto vines.

On Oct. 15 Cal Fire reported it has dropped more than 2 million gallons of retardant on fires throughout the state.

Clark said the county is taking worker safety seriously, and any workers picking in smoke should have the proper respiratory protection and other protections from heat and access to drinking water.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar told Wines & Vines on Oct. 19, that when members of the wine industry and people who owned livestock realized the fires would result in some areas being inaccessible for an extended period of time there was intense demand for such permits. He said he directed his entire staff of about 30 employees to work around the clock reviewing permit applications, and so far they had received 260 requests for entry and approved 130.

“It was really a desperate need,” he said. “As time went on, people started to get nervous. We had a lot of wine in tank that was fermenting and grapes needed to be picked and livestock that needed to be fed.”

Some of these groups included three to four semi-trucks and trailers hauling grape gondolas with caravans of up to a dozen cars carrying pickers. “These are sometimes big groups we’re escorting in and out of these areas,” he said.

Based on the groups he and his staff have escorted and the permit requests, Linegar estimated about 1,000 to 1,200 acres of vineyards have been harvested in closed areas.

Requests first had to be checked to ensure any activity would not be in an active fire area and Linegar said his staff also needed to make sure the route to any property did not pass through fire areas or along roads that were impassible. He said his staff are meeting those approved for entry in the field to issue the permits quickly and they then need to account for everyone entering and leaving the closed areas under the 12-hour passes.

When in the closed areas, Linegar and his staff are also coordinating with utility crews working to restore power, firefighters and other emergency workers. “We’re staying out of their way and so far so good.”

In the fire zone
Signorello Estate, located on the Silverado Trail and founded in 1985, was one of the first victims of the fast-moving Atlas Fire that exploded out of control the night of Oct. 8. In a statement released later in the week, as firefighters were beginning to gain containment on the blaze that had spread into Solano County, winery owner Ray Signorello pledged to rebuild. “The most important thing is that all 25 of our employees are safe,” he said. “We can—and we will—rebuild the winery.”

While the winery buildings “essentially burned to rubble,” Signorello said the estate vineyards are in good shape, and nearly all of the vines had been picked. The 2017 wines in tanks taste sound, as do the 2016 reds and 2017 whites that were in barrel. The winery’s inventory of 2015 reds and 2016 white wines also were safe at an offsite warehouse.

Michael Patland, whose family owns Patland Estate Vineyards on Soda Canyon Road, reported the family’s estate house and other structures were destroyed, but the winery’s 2016 vintage is safe at The Caves at Soda Canyon custom-crush facility. The 2017 vintage is more of a challenge because most of the fruit hadn’t been picked. “We hope to be back up and running as quickly as possible,” he said.

On the night the Atlas Fire started, Patland and his father Henry watched via a security camera feed on Henry Patland’s phone as the flames approached and overcame their vineyards and home on Soda Canyon Road. He compared the experience to watching a horror movie: terrifying and yet too compelling to turn away.

Across the Napa Valley and a few days later, Andrew Cates also watched a security camera feed in horror as flames leapt over his house and Segassia Vineyard property in the Mt. Veeder appellation.

Cates has not been able to return to the property that he purchased in 2012, but he suspects his home and wine cellar are destroyed—including a vertical of wines produced from the vineyard. He and his vineyard manager also fear the vines were unable to survive the intense heat of the fire.

The 4.5-acre vineyard, which produces around 2 tons per acre, had not yet been picked, but Cates is hoping to make use of the fire-damaged grapes from his vineyard and others in Napa County. He and his father developed a dried wine grape snack called RayZyn, and he hopes to use unpicked grapes from this vintage. Cates will donate a portion of sales of RayZyn to fire-relief efforts. “We’re trying to turn lemons into lemonade,” he said.

Other Napa wineries that suffered extensive damage in the fire include the historic White Rock Vineyards and VinRoc in Soda Canyon. A building at the historic Mayacamas Vineyards was destroyed, but the winery remains intact.

Michael Parmenter, who owns VinRoc Wine Caves on Atlas Peak Road with wife Kiky, told Wines & Vines that the house and guesthouse on the property were destroyed as well as equipment sheds and barn. “The good news is that the cave was not damaged, and the wine barrels inside the cave weren’t harmed,” he said in an email. “The vineyard was only partially damaged.”

VinRoc’s inventory of wines is safe in a warehouse. Though Parmenter said he still has grapes hanging, he can’t access the property.

Igor Sill, owner of Sill Family Vineyards, released a statement Oct. 17 reporting his Atlas Peak Road winery had been destroyed but the estate vineyard was undamaged as well as the winery’s back inventory of wines. “As we begin to assess the devastation and impact on our legendary estate, we reflect on our blessings, the wonderful relationships we have formed over the years and our vision for shaping our new winery,” he said. “We will rebuild, stronger and better than before.”

Sill also found inspiration in what he said was a Chinese proverb shared by a neighbor: “The harsher the fire, the more prosperous the rebuild.”

The last of the estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon had been picked “hours before the wildfires struck,” and Sill said despite the recent fires, 2017 was another year in a string of exceptional harvests.

Sonoma County
Fires struck nearly the length of Sonoma County—from Sonoma Valley, where the blazes threatened several historic wineries, up to Geyserville.

Paradise Ridge winery, north of Santa Rosa, was destroyed in the Tubbs Fire, but its owners committed to rebuilding on the winery website.

David Jeffrey, owner of Calluna Vineyards on Chalk Hill, said in an email that between the fires and the heat wave during Labor Day Weekend, 2017 could be known “as the vintage from hell.”

From his vineyard, which has a 360° view of the surrounding region, he watched the Tubbs Fire explode into a firestorm and later evacuated because his property is only accessible by one road.

Jeffrey makes his wine at the custom-crush facility Vinify in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa. While the winery escaped the widespread destruction, it was in an evacuation area, so access was limited and there was no power.

On Oct. 11, Jeffrey said he managed to access the winery and do some critical pumpovers. He said the owners since then have worked with the authorities to gain better access, and power has been restored. He said he picked nearly all of the estate before the fires except for one small block. “We can sequester the wine from that one block and, if it has the dreaded smoke taint, then it will not get into our finished wines.”

The relatively new Fountaingrove District AVA was directly in the path of the Tubbs Fire, and many vineyards and homes in the area were destroyed.

Mary Lou Marek, owner of Antonina’s Vineyard and president of the Fountaingrove District Winegrowers Association, reported Oct. 13 that 12 homes and 90 acres of vineyards had been lost while the fate of another 110 acres was uncertain.

Mendocino County
Fires in the Redwood and Potter valleys of Mendocino County also destroyed some vineyards as well as one winery and caused extensive damage at another.

The small winery Backbone Vineyard & Winery in the Redwood Valley suffered severe damage to the estate vineyard, and the winery was destroyed. “The winery burned to the ground, along with all the wine we’ve made since we moved here in the spring of 2013, five vintages,” winery owner Sattie Clark said.

Clark said she remains grateful that her home and the shop where she produces decorative, custom lighting under the Eleek brand survived. Clark and her husband, Eric Kaster, had just won a double-gold medal in the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition for their 2014 Malbec that was one of the first wines the couple had produced and which one judge had urged be named the best red in the entire competition. 

“I literally talked to everyone who knew anything about making wine and would give me the time," Kaster said. "I got lots of advice, much of it conflicting. The most valuable advice came from Paul Dolan, the winemaker who originally planted our vineyard both because of his sustainability angle and his knowledge of our specific property."

He said the previous vineyard manager Pete Johnson, whose family has been farming in Mendocino County for five generations, was also particularly helpful. 

One of the nation’s largest organic wineries suffered extensive damage but was not destroyed. “The original winery building that housed the offices and bottling room were destroyed, but our production facility can be easily restarted as soon as we can get full access back to the winery,” Nathan Frey of Frey Vineyards told Wines & Vines in an email. 

Stainless steel tanks containing wine were not damaged, and the winery’s warehouse of bottled wine was also undamaged. “We even shipped out two truckloads of wine to take care of some orders as soon as we were allowed back to the winery,” Frey said. “Some vineyards got singed on the edges, but are otherwise fine.”

He added that Redwood Valley Cellars, Parducci Winery and Fetzer Vineyards had all provided assistance in crushing grapes from the current vintage. “We are really grateful for the help from a few local wineries that are crushing some of our grapes,” he said. “Plans for the winery are to get fully up and running again as soon as possible.”

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