At dusk, a week ago, the sky glowed with a smoky, burnt-orange, amber hue. It looked like a fire, maybe a few miles away. By 9 o'clock that night, the smoke filled our house, making it hard to breathe and irritating the eyes.
The next morning, a light dusting of ash covered cars, sidewalks and bushes. When I opened the local newspaper, a short blurb caught my eye: "Fire near Napa Valley chars 3,800 acres." The dateline: Guinda, Yolo County.
Yolo County is northeast of Napa County, about 20 miles away, as the crow flies. Before reaching Napa Valley's vineyards, the fire would likely have run into Lake Berryessa, a massive reservoir that forms part of the boundary between Napa and Yolo counties. So there was no real danger.
But the fire jogged my memory. One of the biggest stories I've covered in 30 years of reporting was a devastating arson blaze in Napa Valley in 1981, the day after the inaugural Napa Valley Wine Auction.
On a hot, dry, windy June day, a firebug set a series of fires along the Silverado Trail near Yountville. Arid 25 mph winds fanned the blaze, which in a matter of hours turned into a massive inferno, quickly charring hundreds, then thousands of parched acres. It took days for an army of 800 firefighters to contain and finally extinguish the raging fire. In the end, it scorched 25,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. Miraculously, no one died.
In the ensuing days, as news of the fire in Napa Valley spread, I began to receive phone calls from news media around the world. People wanted to know how bad Napa's famous vines had been hit.
It turned out that a few vines along the upper reaches of the valley floor near the Stags Leap District had been singed, and perhaps a few in the Atlas Peak area had actually been destroyed. But by and large, Napa's vineyards escaped the Atlas Peak fire unharmed.
Vineyards don't burn easily (because they're not dry timber or underbrush, which do ignite easily). And many, if not most, vineyards have irrigation systems. Should a vineyard be threatened by fire, a winegrower could turn on the drip irrigation or the overhead sprinkler systems, which are used for frost protection.
So the next time you hear about a fire in Napa or Sonoma or Santa Barbara or Paso Robles, worry about people and their homes. But don't fret about the vines. Chances are good they'll be just fine.
This time of year, when harvest is still usually underway, can also bring the first seasonal storms. The first one of the season arrived this past weekend. Bay Area media love these storms. They make for sensational sound bites about impending disaster in Napa or Sonoma, leading up to the 10 o'clock news.
Most years, at least a little rain dampens the vineyards sometime between August and October. Growers, especially those who farm thin-skinned varieties such as Pinot Noir, don't welcome this rain. But even when it rains--and sometimes it can rain 2 to 3 inches--what matters most is what happens after the storm.
If the ground stays wet and the weather cool or mild, mold can sprout. But if the rainstorm is followed by hot, dry or windy weather, then there's rarely much damage or cause for concern. Old-timers say those rainstorms in August and September are wake-up calls from Nature, signaling the grapevines to hurry up and ripen their berries.
As for floods, the rule of thumb is pretty simple, too. When it floods, it's during the winter months, when the vines are dormant. Floods can cause serious vineyard erosion and muddy cellars, but they don't do much damage to vines without grapes.
Earthquakes are in their own special category. They can happen at any time of the year. Wine cellars, homes, restaurants, buildings, roads and bridges may be rattled or destroyed. But unless the fault line runs directly through a vineyard, the vines don't mind at all.
Spectacular weather makes for vivid images and lively news stories. But when it comes to California's vineyards, weather rarely results in disaster. Vines are tough. Those who make wine know this; those of us who drink it could learn a lesson about patience and confidence.
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