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After the Wildfires
By Robert Whitley
Oct 25, 2017
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Rightly or wrongly, when most Americans think of wine country — a vague term at best — they mean the Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County an hour north of San Francisco. The region embodies the good life.
Rolling vineyards give way to wooded hillsides, and idyllic villages with world-class restaurants dot the landscape. Along the way, winery tasting rooms abound. It is Disneyland for adults, a respite from the hustle and bustle of the big city and the cares of the real world.
At least it was until Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, when the peace and tranquility was shattered in the middle of the night by a series of wildfires that swept through the hills and canyons in what is now the deadliest siege of wildfires in California history. The number of fires totaled 16 and more than 40 people perished.
Nearly 6,000 structures were destroyed, including more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa, the cultural and financial hub of Sonoma County. Well over 200,000 acres burned so far, and full containment wasn't achieved until about Oct. 20. Over the first eight days, there were about 100,000 evacuations as the winds shifted and forced residents to flee from areas they once thought were safe.
After the loss of life and property on an epic scale, the question that hangs in the air is whether life in wine country will ever be the same. I believe the wine industry has already given us the answer.
When the fires broke out, the 2017 harvest was, by most estimates, approximately 90 percent complete. The industry, which employs tens of thousands in the region, swung into action. While about a dozen wineries were destroyed, the vast majority of the more than 1,000 in the region survived intact.
Though tasting rooms were closed, vineyard and cellar workers rallied behind the scenes to keep the wineries going, bringing in the last of the hanging fruit and watching over the fermentation tanks at the most critical stage of the winemaking progress.
There were plenty of heroes to go around. Patrick Roney, whose Vintage Wine Estates owns numerous wineries throughout the region, headed up efforts to keep those wineries running even though his own house had been destroyed by the flames. Winemaker Alison Crowe of Garnet Vineyards & Picket Fence Vineyards in the Carneros district reached out on Facebook and offered to make room for any evacuees who have horses or large vehicles. Jeff Mayo of Mayo Family Vineyards rallied his troops to save the winery even as his own home was within shouting distance of the flames.
The industry, a community within a community, has come together to demonstrate that the fires were not the end of the world as everyone in the region has come to know it. The wineries that were destroyed will likely be rebuilt, while the others will clean up the mess and forge ahead.
There has been talk of smoke taint, which can be very real, but given that most of the grapes had been picked and were either in stainless steel tanks or barrels when the fires broke out it, the 2017 vintage should not suffer ill.
There has been talk of damage to the vineyards, which can be a bit overwrought. The vineyards acted as a natural firebreak. Some of the rows of vines along the edges were singed, but there is little evidence thus far that entire vineyards were lost.
Sonoma by far took the biggest hit to life and property. The Napa Valley, particularly the vineyards and wineries on the valley floor, escaped relatively unscathed. Most of the damage there was along the Silverado Trail and around Atlas Peak, including the total destruction of the Signorello Winery. Mendocino County and Lake County to the north took a hit with 32,000 acres burned and one winery lost.
Yet through it all, the one message that came through loud and clear was that the wine country would be open for business again very soon. The E. & J. Gallo Winery has pledged $1 million for fire relief, and wineries from Paso Robles to Temecula have pledged a share of upcoming sales to the restoration effort.
It is a reassuring message for the thousands of wine country residents whose livelihood depends on a thriving wine industry. That includes those indirectly involved with the wine business, such as restaurant and hotel workers who depend upon the steady flow of tourists.
After more than three decades of life in Southern California, I am well-acquainted with wildfires. Yet I am always amazed at how quickly the earth heals, new growth sprouts up and, before I know it, all signs of a devastating fire are gone.
So, too, will America's most hallowed wine country recover from the horrors of vintage 2017.