13 dead as fires sweep through California vineyards

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

11 October 2017

Wild fires have ripped through California’s vineyards, destroying property, lives and vineyards alike. Wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino have all been affected

Multiple fires burned across 40,000 hectares of northern California on Monday night and Tuesday morning, causing panic and confusion. So far 13 people have been confirmed dead, with many more missing.

Main roads were closed and tens of thousands of people were evacuated as the fires rolled down from the hills towards major population centres such as Santa Rosa.

With roads closed and power down, information is still sketchy, but the damage seems to have been extensive, with schools, hotels, restaurants and thousands of homes damaged or destroyed by the flames. Whipped up by strong winds, the fire leapt natural barriers such as main roads to engulf much of the region.

Paradise Ridge winery in Sonoma is confirmed destroyed, as is Signorello Estate in Napa, and Frey Vineyards in Mendocino. There are unconfirmed reports that, Golden Vineyards, Paras Vineyards and the vineyards of Oster Wine Cellars may have been lost too. Many more wineries have sustained partial fire damage, and video footage of the region showed huge clouds of thick black smoke rolling across vineyards.

Napa Valley Vintners said only that it was ‘continuing to monitor and assess the situation and will post updates when we have verifiable information to share.’

Chuck Cramer, director of European sales and marketing for Terlato Wines, said, ‘We don’t know how many have lost their homes. There was no power, roads closed and thick smoke, so we’re relying on second- and third-hand information, but it was pretty bad. It’s incredibly sad that so many homes have been affected. Santa Rosa looks like a war zone.’

Current estimates suggest 1,500 houses have been destroyed, with the Silverado Trail on the eastern side of Napa Valley one of the worst-affected areas. It includes a host of famous names, such as Clos du Val and Robert Sinskey, though there was no confirmation yet as to whether they had been affected. Stag’s Leap, also located in the area, confirmed to Imbibe that while some houses had been damaged, the vineyards and winery were unscathed, and that all of its crop has been harvested before the fires. ‘So far we’ve been lucky, compared to others,’ said the winery's Craig Mitchell.

The fires are believed to have started when a freak wind storm knocked trees into power lines all round the region, causing multiple conflagrations that were whipped up by strong winds. According to the Wine Institute of California the majority of grapes have already been picked, but even leaving aside the human and structural cost, the impact on the 2017 vintage could be significant.

Though three-quarters of the harvest has been picked, most of what is left is California’s signature red grape, the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

‘It’s like 09,’ said Cramer. ‘We could get smoke taint. We’ll see how much of the crop can be converted into wine.’

Wines that were already fermenting in temperature-controlled tanks may also have been affected by the power outage that hit the region.

This is the second big harvest-time fire in the Americas this year, with Chile also seeing some of its oldest vineyards destroyed by fire in January.

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