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Updated: Winemakers Worry as Wildfires Rage in Southern California

Ventura and Santa Barbara County vintners report minor damage; Rupert Murdoch’s Los Angeles winery loses an estimated 200 cases of red wine
Photo by: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Firefighters battle the Thomas fire in Ventura County.

Alan Goldfarb
Posted: December 7, 2017

Updated Dec. 12

More than a week after hurricane-force winds and bone-dry conditions spread wildfires across Southern California, firefighters had largely contained blazes in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, but were still confronting a monster blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. As of Tuesday morning, the Thomas fire had burned more than 230,000 acres and was just 20 percent contained. Hundreds of firefighters are battling blazes while residents evacuate communities like Ojai and Montecito.

Wineries have largely been spared the worst. Vintners in Ventura, particularly around the Upper Ojai Valley, reported some minor damages to vines, but nothing worse. On Dec. 7, Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard posted on social media, “I am very happy to report that all the staff is safe, and there is apparently no damage to our winery. We have not been let into our property yet, but reports are good.”

Tasting rooms and many cellars remain closed for now. Heavy smoke clouds the region. And vintners have reported that some of their employees have lost their homes.

The flames moved into Santa Barbara County over the weekend, but had not spread toward the Santa Ynez Valley as of Tuesday. Thankfully, the winds have subsided, slowing the flames' spread.

Farther south, the team at Moraga Estate, a vineyard and winery owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, was still trying to assess damage from the Skirball fire.

A staffperson at the winery told Wine Spectator that firefighters had been able to protect the winery, vineyards and Murdoch’s home, but that a small building housing some inventory was heavily damaged. The staffer reported that about 200 cases of Moraga’s 2013 red blend, worth $420,000 at retail, is believed to have been destroyed.

The 86-year-old Murdoch bought the Moraga Estate property in 2012 for almost $29 million. Winemaker Scott Rich, who was not able to make it to the winery Wednesday due to the hazardous conditions, told Wine Spectator, “I’m reasonably sure most of the current-release reds have been destroyed.”

Early on Wednesday morning Rich called the winery staff and told them not to come to work. But a salesperson who was at the winery saw the building containing the inventory go up in flames. She told Wine Spectator that firefighters would not allow her to inspect the building.

As of early Wednesday night, one other structure on the property, a storage building, was destroyed, but the winery and caves, as well as the 6-acre vineyard, were undamaged. The property was still evacuated as of Thursday afternoon.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Helicopters dropped water on the vineyards at Moraga Estate.

The winery’s vineyards are located above Interstate 405 and across from the Getty Museum. Moraga produces about 1,000 cases per year of a Bordeaux-style blend and a Sauvignon Blanc. Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., which includes 21st Century Fox and Fox News, was traveling at the time of the fire.

Rich says that “a substantial proportion” of Moraga’s current release is stored safely in an offsite office and in the cave, which also houses Moraga’s library wines.

For Rich, it was the worst sort of déjà vu. He lives in Sonoma County and had to evacuate his Glen Ellen home during the wine-country wildfires in October. He was staying at his father’s house in Los Angeles this week when he looked out the window and realized what was happening.

“It was surreal,” he said. “I looked out at a very familiar orange glow and I knew it wasn’t the sunrise. I had the same feeling I had in Sonoma Valley.”

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