Updated Aug. 24, 2:30 p.m.
California wine regions earned a reprieve this past weekend, as high winds and lightning strikes in the forecast never materialized, allowing firefighters to begin to contain the massive wildfires burning into multiple parts of the state. The danger has not passed yet, however, and vintners are trying to figure out how to harvest grapes in both a pandemic and a wildfire crisis.
The LNU Lightning Complex fire continued to grow, spreading through Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Solano counties. The latest report from Cal Fire, the state fire agency, said more than 350,000 acres had burned as of Monday morning. There are five confirmed fatalities so far in what has been a weeklong battle by firefighters to contain the flames. There is 22 percent containment so far.
The Walbridge fire in Sonoma, part of the LNU blaze, more than doubled in size over the weekend, growing to 54,068 acres burned. It was 5 percent contained by Monday morning. It remains the largest concern for Cal Fire in the region. "[It's] presenting extremely difficult conditions for fire suppression," said Chris Waters, operations section chief of the LNU Lightening Complex for Cal Fire, at a press conference Sunday morning.
The fire is burning through very steep terrain, with plenty of fuel and endangered structures, and Cal Fire is moving more resources to the area to battle the blaze. Farther south, in Marin County, a Sonoma Sheriff’s helicopter rescued two firefighters who were trapped battling the Woodward fire in Point Reyes on Friday night.
The spread of the fires has been due to what Cal Fire calls "extreme fire behavior," with fires making runs in multiple directions and spot fires popping up in surrounding areas. More than 1,500 structures have been destroyed in the LNU complex so far. Vineyards normally act as fire breaks, but can burn when a fire is hot enough and spreading fast enough.
Meanwhile, vintners are trying to harvest. A heat wave has ripened grapes and growers already had picks scheduled. Vintners in evacuation zones are keeping limited crews in their wineries to monitor fermentations, wondering if the power will stay on and if they'll have to leave. And smoke blankets the region.
Residents of Healdsburg continue to live with evacuation warnings in effect. Thankfully, firefighters have been able to keep the flames to the west, but less-populated areas were under mandatory evacuation orders. At one point on Saturday, authorities expanded the evacuation order to all of Dry Creek and parts of Healdsburg west of highway 101. But that was downgraded by Sunday afternoon.
One Dry Creek winery did suffer damage. Gustafson Family Vineyards near Lake Sonoma reported that their vineyards were partially damaged and their winemaker's home burned down. The winery and tasting room building and offices survived. They posted on social media that they're unsure if they'll harvest this year.
Other wineries have been able to move ahead with some picking. Although Gary Farrell winery, along Healdsburg's Westside Road, was in one of the mandatory evacuation zones, winemaker Theresa Heredia said last week that she and her team were still able to enter the winery to keep an eye on fermentations. "We're still making wine to the best of our abilities," she said, noting that the vineyards are looking OK, but she'd prefer to pick grapes sooner rather than later. She said the Meyers fire near Jenner was a concern as they source from a vineyard nearby. "I spoke with the vineyard manager, and he said it was clear at the vineyard and not smoky."
Farther up Westside Road, Armida winemaker Brandon Lapides said that while the winery was under evacuation orders, they are continually monitoring the fire and recommendations from the county, while still trying to keep operations running at the winery. "We were able to get past the security lines to the winery to process some samples," he said, noting that he's getting state passes for five workers and plans to continue to work as normal until told otherwise. "Even amongst this uncertainty, I had to call for our pick of Sauvignon Blanc on Saturday [Aug. 22]. I have no idea what Saturday will look like, but given the heat wave, there is no time to wait."
Lapides added that he has a winemaker friend in Santa Rosa that offered to press the grapes if they can't access the winery. "The winemaking community of Sonoma County is once again showing its adaptability and resilience."
Farther south in Russian River Valley, staff at Korbel reported that while the fire didn't appear to be moving in their direction, they had already arranged to divert grapes to their Heck Cellars property in Bakersfield to be crushed. "We started harvest on Aug. 3 and were anticipating being done by Labor Day weekend due to the heat," said Margie Healy, vice president of communications. Instead they finished picking on Saturday. Helicopters have been using the pond on the Korbel property to pick up water to drop on the fire.
On the Sonoma Coast, Jeff Pisoni, winemaker at Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, reports the flames came very close before the fire started moving east. "Fort Ross is safe, but the fire came within 200 feet of the tasting room and vineyard," he told Wine Spectator. "The locals were helping with fire lines, and fire trucks were lined up every 50 feet along Meyers Grade road, which ended up being the fire line. It's a wild start to the harvest season, that's for sure."
In Napa, a spot fire broke out Thursday afternoon in the hills above To Kalon Vineyard. Cal Fire dubbed it the Mondavi fire. A quick deployment of fire trucks and aerial water drops brought it under control.
The situation was more uncertain on the eastern side of the valley, where flames have been consuming brush in the hills. There was worry Wednesday night that the fire would engulf Howell Mountain. Spot fires had spread to the area, prompting evacuations for the communities of Angwin and Deer Park.
John Conover, general manager and partner at PlumpJack, Cade and Odette Estate, said Cade on Howell Mountain was issued a mandatory evacuation notice late Wednesday afternoon. "I sent staff home prior to noon for both their safety and to get cars and trucks off the road," he said, adding that all four of the PlumpJack portfolio wineries are closed today for safety. "We are fortunate to have four wineries. We are picking Sauvignon Blanc for Cade in St. Helena tomorrow, which will now be crushed at PlumpJack."
Mike and Randy Dunn of Dunn, also on Howell Mountain, reported that the fire seemed to slow and remained 5 miles or so from their property. "There's cool weather now, but the roads are still closed," said Mike. "Randy and I stayed here at the winery with an old fire truck that is fully operational."
On the eastern side of Howell Mountain lies Pope Valley, which has grown in popularity for grapegrowing in recent years. St. Supery's Dollarhide Ranch is there, spanning 1,530-plus acres, 500 of which are planted to vines. Emma Swain, CEO, said they started harvest on Monday, Aug. 17, and hoped to continue picking. "The fire has come to our property line and we have cut firebreaks to keep it off," she said, noting that friends and neighbors have been at the ready with water trucks and bulldozers.
Swain said they're fortunate to have a significant amount of undeveloped acreage surrounding the Dollarhide vineyards, so the fire's proximity is not as close as it could be. "We have had minimal smoke, even less than we are seeing in the valley, thanks to the direction of the winds."
Stay on top of important wine stories with Wine Spectator's free Breaking News Alerts.
Vintner Bruce Neyers lives with his family in Conn Valley, south of Pope Valley. Neyers said the Napa County Sheriff came by with a mandatory evacuation order Wednesday night. For now they have opted to stay. "We see lots of smoke," he said. "We see nothing but smoke, frankly." Neyers also describes being better prepared from recent fire experiences, including having bags packed and even a bag of treats and a leash ready for their corgi, Henry. "Let's face it. If you've been living in Northern California for the last three or four years and you're not prepared for a fire, you're not paying attention."
The Aetna fire, straddling Napa and Lake counties, has swelled past 4,500 acres, with no containment. And the Round fire has erupted in Lake County, north of Middletown, which was nearly destroyed a few years ago, and is at 4,000 acres with no containment.
The River fire in Monterey County has burned more than 48,000 acres near Salinas, and Cal Fire reports that the fire continues to burn in all directions. Just south of San Francisco, the CZU Complex in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties has consumed more than 74,000 acres. Firefighters fought hard all weekend to reach eight percent containment as of Monday morning. More than 68,000 people have evacuated and 20 structures have been destroyed. One of California's oldest state parks, Big Basin Redwoods, was severely damaged, including damage to its campgrounds and 1,000-year-old redwoods.
Bradley Brown, founder and winemaker at Big Basin Vineyards, said they had evacuated Tuesday, Aug. 18, and that the fire was burning within a half-mile of the winery. "I believe since the vineyard provides lots of defensible space, they might have a fire crew stationed there to keep an eye on the fire to the west and hopefully protect our winery and my house," said Brown. Word came in Monday morning that the winery was still standing, but Brown's house had burned.
Regarding harvest, Brown said, one of his biggest concerns is that they have no crop insurance. "If smoke gets dense over the vineyard for any time, the grapes will be ruined," he said. "It would mean a huge, irrecoverable loss, and an entire estate vintage lost."
Keikilani McKay, executive director of the Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains trade association, said the worry over smoke taint is considerable. "There's no wind and the ash and smoke are settling on the vineyards. There are worries about basically losing the entire harvest."
Jeff Pisoni said last week that his family has been working to protect their vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. "My brother Mark is out there with his vineyard team right now bulldozing and building fire lines around our Pisoni Vineyard, just in case the fire continues south," he said. "He also covered the wells with sandbags to protect the water supply. Unfortunately the state doesn't have enough resources to help everywhere, so the growers and farmers need to be out there too."
Cal Fire said more than 350,000 acres have burned in Northern and Central California, and firefighters and other responders are spread thin, as 23 significant fires are still burning statewide. Additional air support has been available but has been limited at times due to the amount of smoke in the air, which doesn't allow air support to operate safely. Two large tanker airplanes, converted 747s, headed to the LNU Complex for the first time to make drops Thursday, and will hopefully make a substantial impact on the firefight.