California Wildfires Devastate Malibu Wine Region

Vintners in the burgeoning wine region report destroyed homes and wineries and scorched vines
California Wildfires Devastate Malibu Wine Region
Vintner Richard Hirsh took this picture of his Cielo Vineyards after the fires came through. (Richard Hirsh)
Nov 14, 2018

One of the wildfires burning across California has chased vintners from their wineries and homes in the Malibu Coast appellation. The Woolsey fire has traveled from Highway 101 in Thousand Oaks down to the Pacific Coast, scorching acres of vineyards and damaging or destroying wineries and other structures.

"It'll likely be a good six months to a year before the roads into the hills can be traveled again," said Ken Fasola, owner of Malibu Discovery wine tours and the Sip Malibu Grapes tasting room, which burned down in the blaze.

According to the latest data from Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency, the Woolsey fire has burned more than 97,000 acres and destroyed more than 435 structures. As of last night, it was 40 percent contained. The blaze is one of several large fires in the state that ignited this week, aided by dry conditions and high winds. At least 50 people have died in the fires, including two in the Woolsey blaze.

The Malibu Coast AVA is one of the state's newer appellations, created in 2014. The area encompasses 44,590 acres within the 182,000 acres of the Santa Monica National Recreational Area in Southern California. The local vintners association, the Malibu Coast Vintners & Grape Growers Alliance (MCVGGA), has more than 50 members representing—before the fire—roughly 200 acres of vines.

"We've been in contact with at least half of our members and we've learned that there has been extensive damage to virtually all the vineyards and wineries throughout the AVA," said Greg Barnett, president of the MCVGGA and owner of Nabu winery in Westlake Village, in a statement. "The speed with which the fire escalated was terrifying."

Barnett said reports of damage have ranged from burned vines around vineyard perimeters to total devastation of vineyards, residences and other buildings. Power is out in most of the region, and many roads are closed. The fire began on Nov. 8 in Ventura County, then spread into Los Angeles County. Thanks to high winds, it doubled over the next 48 hours.

Several winemakers observed that their vineyards have served as firebreaks, saving their homes and winery facilities from destruction. Vineyards typically don’t burn in wildfires.

Don Schmitz, owner of Malibu Solstice Vineyard, lost almost everything but his house, which was surrounded on all sides by vineyards. Schmitz said he had been going back and forth from his home to his office all night on Nov. 9, trying to save important documents, when the fire jumped the freeway at about 4 a.m. the next morning and headed down the hills toward the ocean.

He took backroads to the winery and watched as a wall of flames raced across the canyon, burning through a large stand of oaks. "Oaks are tough and can take an incredible beating, but they were reduced to sticks," he told Wine Spectator. "The fire had 200-foot flames and took out all my equipment, my outbuildings and my barn. All vehicles were burned down to their metal frames, but the house was unscathed, and the vines made all the difference. As the flames reached the vineyard you could see them die down to about a foot tall."

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
The Woolsey fire approaches the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

"Most everybody around me is gone," said Richard Hirsh, owner of Cielo Vineyards. "Without a doubt, being surrounded by 10,000 vines saved my house and barn. I'd planned to stay, but when you see the ferocity of 100-foot flames, you feel their heat and the absolute roar of the sound, I knew no way could I stick around to save the property. We'll probably need to replant 3,000 to 4,000 vines. All the stakes burned down, the posts are gone, the netting virtually evaporated and the irrigation hoses melted away. But the vineyard protected the house."

Schmitz, like many winery owners and friends who've lost everything, plans to rebuild. "I will replant," he said. "But I gotta tell you, it's been so devastating to see my neighbors' houses burn."


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