Firefighters Push Back Kincade Fire and Sonoma Vintners Begin to Return Home

Improved weather has wine country evacuees hoping they can get back to the 2019 vintage

Firefighters Push Back Kincade Fire and Sonoma Vintners Begin to Return Home
Little is left of Soda Rock winery's 160-year-old cellar building. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)
Oct 30, 2019

Updated Oct. 30, 10:30 p.m. ET: In the early afternoon, many of the tens of thousands of evacuated residents of Sonoma County got word that they could return home. Sheriff Mark Essick lifted the mandatory evacuation order for much of the county. Only those who live close to where the fire still burns are not allowed to go back home.

Winds never grew too strong today, and at 4 p.m. local time, the National Weather Service lifted the warning of critical fire weather for the North San Francisco Bay region. Local utility PG&E has begun restoring service, though 70,000 homes and businesses remain without power.

With four wineries in the fire zone, Foley Family Wines faced a lot of danger during the past week. The company issued a statement today: "From all of Foley Family Wines, we would like to extend a sentiment of extreme gratitude for the heroic efforts of all first responders in fighting the Kincade fire. With one winery located in Geyserville [Foley Sonoma], and three on Chalk Hill Road [Lancaster, Roth and Chalk Hill], we certainly feared for the worst. We are relieved and grateful to report that, although a few of our properties suffered damage to non-essential buildings and equipment, all employees are accounted for and safe while our wineries escaped major damage.

"Having been admitted back onto our properties to take stock of what remains, one thing is abundantly clear: There was a courageous and consuming fight to save what we hold dear. No tidy statement of recognition will be able to convey how utterly thankful we feel for those who put their safety and well-being on the line for us. With that acknowledgment, we also recognize that many in our industry were not so fortunate, and our hearts go out to our colleagues, friends and neighbors who were further affected."

Oct. 30, 12:45 p.m.: Fire crews in Sonoma County worked around the clock Tuesday night, hoping to take advantage of subsiding winds to try and contain the Kincade fire and help this wine region begin to think about recovery. They set up perimeters on the outer edge of the city of Santa Rosa, near where the devastating Tubbs fire roared through two years ago. And they patrolled the higher elevations, on the borders of Lake and Napa counties.

Their lines held for the most part. As of this morning, 76,825 acres have burned, not much of an increase from Tuesday, and the fire is now 30 percent contained. The total number of structures confirmed destroyed has increased to 206, with 40 structures damaged. The good news is that high winds should subside today and more favorable weather conditions should prevail over the next five to seven days.

For the 140,000 residents who are still evacuated, there's hope they can return soon. Vintners are eager to check their wineries—for most, the 2019 vintage remains in tank. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has downgraded the northern part of Dry Creek Valley to an evacuation warning. "This means that you can return home now at your own risk," the office posted. "This area is still at risk from the Kincade fire, and much of this area does not have power or natural gas due to the power shutoff."

While some homes in Knights Valley were destroyed, the two best-known wineries, Peter Michael and Knights Bridge, have survived. Knights Bridge winemaker Douglas Danielak confirmed that the winery's property was unharmed. "The fire came close but everybody is safe," he told Wine Spectator, adding that the community was better prepared in every aspect than during the 2017 fires. "There seems to be better communication channels between the wine community and the first responders."

The winery harvested the last of its grapes before the fire started. Danielak, who also works with growers in the Russian River Valley for his own label, Pont Neuf, says the warm weather prior to the fire helped to ripen the grapes. "That made a big difference in the quality and allowed our red grapes to get over the hump," he said.

Vintner Jake Bilbro is still waiting to return to Limerick Lane, his winery just outside Healdsburg. But he knows it's still standing. "The fire came very, very close to us," Bilbro told Wine Spectator. "In fact, it came all the way to our northern property line. We are feeling very, very fortunate. … I got the National Guard to let an employee onsite yesterday to add dry ice to tanks and check on everything. We shut off night fans and sealed the doors to the cellar prior to the evacuation. The cellar is smoke free."

Stay on top of important wine stories with Wine Spectator's free Breaking News Alerts.

Many vintners expressed gratitude for emergency workers and helpful friends. Medlock Ames sits on Bell Mountain, on the border of Alexander Valley and Knights Valley. "The Kincade fire swept quickly through our vineyards at Bell Mountain Ranch and touched almost 75 percent of our property," the winery posted on social media. "With the amazing efforts of the first responders, none of the buildings—including our winery, barns and offices—burned. A few vines out of our 55 acres were singed. Our wines were safe in our winery and the remaining 30 tons we harvested quickly were brought to our friends at Saintsbury in Carneros as soon as the evacuation order was given."

While winemakers worried about the 2019 vintage and growers worried about the small amount of fruit that was still hanging in vineyards and may now be lost, concerns for family and friends came first. Dianna Novy Lee, who founded Siduri with her husband, Adam Lee, and now produces sparkling wine for her Flaunt label, evacuated from her Windsor home to San Francisco. She recounted how it felt when she learned the fire was developing, just two years after the last heavy fires.

"That evening I asked my kids, Amber, 16, and Truett, 13, to put together a backpack just in case we needed to leave. We went ahead and packed our suitcases that night and made a list of things we wanted to take in case of an evacuation. Saturday morning we started to pull together the special things that we wanted to take with us. For me it was my jewelry and a picture of my maternal grandmother. My oldest son, Christian, is away at college, and he asked me to grab his first teddy and a very special pair of Nike basketball shoes. Amber grabbed her charm bracelet that she's been adding to since she was 4 and Truett grabbed his signed Kevin Durant and Emmitt Smith jerseys. Adam grabbed his grandfather's bible."

"We put the kitties in their carriers and the bunnies in their crate and grabbed their pet supplies. There were three bottles of Clarice Pinot and two bottles of Flaunt Bubbly by the front door already packed up for events. I threw those in the car too."

The Lees evacuated to a hotel in Mill Valley that day, but PG&E cut power to the area that night. They moved the next morning to a hotel in San Francisco, and watched as alerts came in that the fire was in their neighborhood. Thankfully, they've learned their house survived. And their wines are at a stage where they don't need intervention.

She and Adam have made sure to enjoy the wine they packed. "When the family is all together and I'm enjoying some wine that I know was made with love, I am aware that the most precious things in my life are not material things after all."

—with reporting by Kim Marcus, Aaron Romano and Tim Fish.

More 2019 Wildfires

See More

Can Grapes Be Protected from Wildfire Smoke Taint?

Mar 6, 2020

When Disaster Strikes, Sonoma Endures

Nov 7, 2019

Sonoma Wine Country Regains Its Footing

Nov 7, 2019

Star Chefs Assemble Super-Team to Feed California Fire Victims

Oct 31, 2019

Firefighters Battle Sonoma Blaze While Wineries Wonder and Worry

Oct 28, 2019

News 2019 Wildfires Disasters Fires California Sonoma

You Might Also Like

Opening Night During a Pandemic

Opening Night During a Pandemic

At a time when the hospitality industry is facing an unprecedented crisis, some restaurateu…

Oct 20, 2020
Italian Police Uncover Counterfeit Sassicaia Ring

Italian Police Uncover Counterfeit Sassicaia Ring

Authorities exposed an international plot to produce phony bottles of the celebrated super …

Oct 16, 2020
F.X. Pichler Drops Long-Established Wachau Classification System from Its Labels

F.X. Pichler Drops Long-Established Wachau Classification System from Its Labels

Renowned Austrian producer walks away from the Vinea Wachau Association it helped found in …

Oct 16, 2020
Passing the Tuscan Torch: A Live Chat with Piero Antinori

Passing the Tuscan Torch: A Live Chat with Piero Antinori

The Italian wine legend talks about revolutionizing Tuscan wine, ushering in the next …

Oct 15, 2020
Dolores Cakebread, One of the Original Hosts of Napa Valley, Dies at 90

Dolores Cakebread, One of the Original Hosts of Napa Valley, Dies at 90

The co-founder of Cakebread Cellars was known for her hospitality and food and wine pairings

Oct 14, 2020
Could a Tool to Combat Coronavirus Also Protect Grapevines from an Annual Threat?

Could a Tool to Combat Coronavirus Also Protect Grapevines from an Annual Threat?

Scientists and vintners are exploring using UV lights, now being employed in HVAC systems …

Oct 13, 2020