With the specter of Northern California’s ongoing wine-country wildfire tragedy on the minds of many wine lovers, Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken led a last-minute addition to the New York Wine Experience seminars on Saturday morning. Since the wildfires ignited beginning Oct. 8, more than 200,000 acres have burned in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The death toll now stands at 42, with more than 7,700 structures destroyed, including at least 11 severely damaged or destroyed wineries and dozens more reporting property damage.
With the fires now largely contained, the Northern California wine industry faces both the immediate fire damage and concerns about smoke taint in the wines, as well as more-concerning, long-term consequences for the regional economy stemming from labor and housing shortages that were already problems before the fires started.
Joining Shanken and Napa-based Wine Spectator senior editor James Laube on stage were two vintners close to the fires: Randy Lewis, whose Lewis Cabernet Napa Valley 2013 is the 2016 Wine of the Year, and Barbara Banke, head of Jackson Family Wines and winner of Wine Spectator’s 2017 Distinguished Service Award.
“We’re going to have a program that wasn’t originally scheduled,” Shanken began, “but neither was the fire. … We’re going to give a report on what happened, what its impact is—it’s such a relevant topic to the lives of the people in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. … Barbara owns vineyards and wineries in all three counties.”
”I’m sort of a nervous wreck,” said Banke, who lives in Sonoma County. “We were evacuated twice [during the wildfires].” But she also said she feels fortunate and optimistic after two harrowing weeks. ”The overview is fortunately that this fire burned late [in the grapegrowing season],” she said, “so about 77 percent of our harvest was in, and it occurred after a period of heat, so most of the grapes still on the vine were ripe and ready to be harvested.”
In addition to Santa Rosa–based Kendall-Jackson winery and its vast vineyard holdings, among the Jackson Family Wines properties in the wildfire-threatened areas were Mt. Brave and Cardinale and Lokoya's vineyards on Napa's Mount Veeder, La Jota on Napa's Howell Mountain; vineyards in Sonoma's Alexander Valley, Arrowood in Sonoma Valley, Matanzas Creek and Siduri in Sonoma; and Edmeades' vineyard in Mendocino's Redwood Valley, among many others.
“Fortunately, vineyards make good fire breaks,” Banke added. “A lot of the fires went right up to the outside of the vineyards. The Pocket fire [near Geyserville in Sonoma County] stopped right at the vineyard’s edge. … The fire didn’t come down into Alexander Valley, which would have been devastating; it didn’t come into Geyserville; it didn’t come into Healdsburg.”
“We’re also very fortunate,” said Lewis, whose winery is in Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll District, but who buys fruit from multiple subappellations in Napa. “A winery burned down about 2 miles from us, but all our employees were fine, [although] they had to be evacuated a couple times.” Because the fires prevented access to certain sites, he said, they're just picking their last two vineyards now. And during the height of the disaster, “we lost power, cell phones, Internet, so we really didn’t know—it was hard to get in touch with our growers, with our employees. The smoke was so bad that you had to drive with your lights on in the middle of the day.”
“Certain parts of Atlas Peak got completely destroyed,” Lewis continued. “Some of our friends did lose their homes. Because [the fire spread so rapidly in] the middle of the night … one of our friends barely made it out [of his house]. As soon as he got to the end of the driveway, the whole thing went up [in flames]. Fifty-mile-per-hour winds spread it all over the place. Scary times. But we’re going to get through it.”
“Winemakers are farmers, and they take a certain amount of pride in helping each other out,” said Laube. “Whatever needs to get done will get done.”
The Aftermath, and a Long Recovery
“This is a story of human loss,” said Laube. “The vineyards and wineries were really just barely touched, nicked, more than wounded. It’s the people who lived in Santa Rosa in Sonoma, and in Napa, who lost their homes that is going to create the biggest hardship. Where are these people going to live? Where are they going to work? Those are big, big questions.”
“There was already a housing shortage in Northern California,” said Shanken. “[It was] hard to buy homes, rent homes—and now we had 100,000 people evacuated, thousands of homes lost. What can be done? How long will it take? Rebuilding thousands of homes will take many years and untold sums of money.”
Banke reported that 23 Jackson Family Wines employees lost their homes to the fires, and that the company has housed them all for now, either in winery guesthouses or other properties. As far as the bigger picture, short- and long-term solutions for the housing woes will need to be carefully examined and addressed. “FEMA has come in, and they are sending nearly 1,000 of what they call ‘Katrina cottages’ to the area,” Banke said. “And we are looking at a parcel of land where we could install quite a few of them.”
As for the grapes that remained to be harvested, smoke taint looks to be less of a concern than initially feared. In 2008, the wildfires that had such an impact on grape quality in Mendocino and Sonoma occurred during the summer, while the fruit was still developing. This year, when the fires broke out, the remaining fruit was mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, which was essentially fully ripe.
“Those grapes are tough,” Banke said. “Cabernet is thick-skinned. If the fire had happened during veraison, that would have been bad, because the grapes are still respirating and you would get more smoke. But we’re taking a lot of steps to minimize any possible impact. The 2017 vintage, most of it was in the tanks [before the fires started], and we really are quite bullish on the vintage.”
While she believes there will be little to no tangible smoke impact on the 2017 vintage, it will be hard to know until fermentation is complete, Lewis said, as smoke taint often isn't obvious in wines until then. But consumers shouldn't anticipate encountering any smoke-tainted 2017 Cabernets. “Any wines that were affected [by smoke] won’t be bottled or sold,” said Laube, and Banke agreed: “We’re monitoring the Cabernet that wasn’t picked [before the fires started], and if any of it does have smoke taint, you won’t see it.”