Fire Threatens California Wine Country
© W. Blake Gray/Wine-Searcher | A house lies in ruins in Sonoma County, while the vineyard behind it stands untouched. With grapes still unpicked in many areas, the blaze couldn’t have come at a worse time for some producers. By W. Blake Gray | Posted Friday, 25-Oct-2019
Just as California seemed ready to celebrate a fine harvest season, a huge wildfire broke out in the rugged hills of northern Sonoma County on Wednesday night, forcing the evacuation of the town of Geyserville and threatening grapes still on the vines.
Called the Kincade Fire, it was sparked by gusty winds of up to 60 mph (100 kph). The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. But the San Francisco Chronicle reported that although it started in an area where Pacific Gas & Electric had planned a power outage to prevent downed power lines from starting fires, the bankrupt utility had not actually cut off its high-voltage, above-ground power transmission lines.
There is some good news. No injuries have been reported as of noon on October 24, unlike the Tubbs Fire in 2017, when at least 22 Sonoma County residents were killed. Sonoma County residents and officials were more prepared this time, even though the fire quickly expanded to at least 10,000 acres and was 0 percent contained more than 15 hours after it started. Fortunately, unlike the Tubbs Fire it has not immediately jumped into any populated areas.
“There is still a lot of trauma in Sonoma County from the fires of two years ago and waking up to a day like today brings back a lot of memories,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said at a press conference.
For wine lovers, there is also this good news: the majority of wine grapes in Sonoma County and neighboring Napa County have been harvested, so the 2019 vintage should not have the threat of smoke taint hanging over it.
But there are still grapes on the vines and workers in the fields, even in Alexander Valley, the wine region nearest to the fire.
KGO reported that a busload of about 50 farmworkers from Ferrari Carano Vineyards & Winery were evacuated to the Healdsburg Community Center; the reporter said they brought all their belongings. They will join many of the 2000 residents of Geyserville who are under evacuation orders. The county is also preparing the unincorporated area north of Healdsburg for evacuation.
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, the California Highway Patrol said it is prepared to close part of US Highway 101 – a major north-south thoroughfare in northern California – though it does not currently expect to do so. But it urged people who rely on the highway to commute to make alternate plans.
Adding additional stress for local residents, a smaller fire burst out Thursday morning east of Santa Rosa, but it was quickly placed under containment.
KTVU showed the ruins of what it said was a winery building completely destroyed on Geysers Road, but its reporter said they could not identify the winery, as all identifying markers were gone. As of press time, the winery has still not been identified.
KTVU later reported that prison inmate work crews were cutting firebreak to protect River Rock Casino.
Other television footage showed something that wineries learned during the calamitous fires of 2017: vineyards are a pretty effective firebreak. KNTV showed a house that had been completely destroyed, while a vineyard right behind it was barely touched (see still photo above). Even after being harvested, grapevines tend to have some water in them, so that while vines hit directly by fire will burn, fire does not easily spread into the rest of the vineyard.
In Napa Valley, wineries with grapes on the vines were hustling Thursday to harvest as much as possible before the wind shifts. Winds on Thursday morning were blowing westward toward the Pacific Ocean and coastal Pinot Noir vineyards that had already been mostly harvested. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is a late-ripening grape and the vineyards that have not yet been harvested are some of the most valuable. And weather forecasters say the winds will start blowing toward Napa Valley on Friday, with even heavier winds forecast for Saturday.
Just one day earlier, the Napa Valley Register published a harvest roundup story quoting winemakers from each subregion of Napa Valley. Many are done. But others are not.
Matt Crafton of Chateau Montelena told the Register that his own winery’s harvest is finished, but
“there is still plenty of fruit to pick in Calistoga with many wineries taking advantage of the pleasant weather for additional hangtime”. Calistoga is particularly close to the Kincade Fire – not to be at risk from the fire itself, but possibly from smoke.
Spring Mountain District is even closer, and Smith-Madrone winemaker Stu Smith told the Register: “several wineries including Pride, Sherwin and Spring Mountain Vineyards, will harvest into November”. On the bright side, Smith also said: “The most common comments about the vintage are that there are excellent flavors at lower sugars this year, there is tremendous color extraction, the chemistry ratio between acid and pHs was excellent and the Cabernets are very well balanced.”
In Oakville, source of some of the country’s most expensive Cabernets, Jennifer Rue of Hoopes Vineyard told the Register: “Across Oakville, 60-70 percent of this year’s harvest was picked this past week and hot dry conditions will ensure the last few stragglers will be in before Halloween.” Halloween might come early for some of those vines.