Fire engines streamed out of Sonoma County wine country Wednesday, returning to their home bases across California and throughout the West as the once-ferocious Kincade fire was contained. It had consumed almost 78,000 acres since igniting Oct. 23 in the mountainous terrain above the vineyards of northern Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. The damage, though significant, represents just a fraction of the devastation wrought by Northern California’s 2017 wine country fires.
At its height, on the weekend of Oct. 26, more than 190,000 of Sonoma County’s residents were evacuated as the fast-growing fire threatened the cities of Healdsburg and Windsor. But a strike force assembled by the state’s fire control agency, Cal Fire, that eventually numbered up to 5,000 personnel, made a successful stand in defending the two cities—and succeeded in stopping the fire from spreading into western Sonoma.
In contrast to two years ago, when more than 5,000 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties were destroyed, and more than 40 people died, there were no recorded fatalities during the Kincade fire, though four firefighters were injured and 374 structures were destroyed, including 174 homes.
And while the fire burned around and sometimes through Alexander Valley, most of the charred acreage was in remote forest- and scrub-covered hillsides in eastern Sonoma County centered on The Geysers geothermal district, where the fire ignited. Most Alexander Valley residents and vintners are now returning to more accurately assess the damage, with many stressing the fact that the vast majority of the region’s vineyards and wineries were left unscathed.
Resilience, and relief
“It’s been a challenging week and a half,” Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli told Wine Spectator. Foppoli was among a crowd of elected officials and staff that greeted evacuees as they returned home Oct. 30. “We‘re a strong, resilient community with so much heart. This has brought us together and made us so much stronger.”
By this past weekend, signs of life were returning to once-deserted towns and cities. Restaurants and hotels have reopened their doors in Healdsburg, a major wine country destination at the crossroads of the Alexander, Russian River and Dry Creek valleys. “We need people to realize that Sonoma County is not burned down,” said Foppoli, who also co-owns Christopher Creek winery near Healdsburg. “The best way to support us is to come visit us.”
Jake Bilbro of Limerick Lane winery, just outside of Healdsburg, was able to return earlier this week and said the fire reached the northern and southern side of his property. He credits firefighters for protecting his century-old vineyard, as well as his winery, and hopes to reopen this weekend.
A vintage spared, for most
According to Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, which represents more than 1,800 growers in the region, the harvest was nearly finished by the time the fire started, with 92 percent of her members’ grapes harvested before Oct. 28.
Vintners are still assessing the 2019 vintage wines, still fermenting or resting in barrel. Power was shut off preemptively through much of the region to avoid live electrical lines breaking and throwing sparks in heavy winds, which are blamed for igniting many of 2017’s fires. Bilbro says his 2019 wines should be fine despite the winery losing power for eight days. “We made sure that all of our wine was protected and was in a safe place,” Bilbro said. “Thus far, every indication is that our wine is in great shape.”
But some wineries were not so fortunate. “We are looking at the loss of our entire  vintage,” said Foppoli, who fears that his wines in tank and barrel were exposed to heat and smoke after the winery lost power. Christopher Creek was finishing the second half of its harvest and still had grapes on its crush pad when the fire threatened the winery. “It’s probably not salvageable after being left for eight days in the sun with no winemaker.”
Picking up the pieces, and moving forward
At Soda Rock winery, which suffered major damage, including the destruction of its 160-year-old cellar building, and lost stocks of wines already bottled, winemaker Antoine Favero is charting the road ahead for the wines from the 2019 vintage. Most were being made at nearby and undamaged Mazzocco winery (where he is also winemaker) when the fire hit.
"The wines were on their own for a while—unfortunate, because it started out to be such an amazing year. Great fruit, beautiful profiles," Favero said. "My protocol went out the door. I closed the tops [of the tanks] and said a little prayer and left … in my 30 years of winemaking, this is the first time [we’ve been] impacted by no electricity and evacuations." His biggest fears were for the white wine and rosés, where fermentations that are normally kept in the 40° F range were nearing 70° F.
Soda Rock’s tastings have resumed, in a new venue. "We decided we were going to do a pop-up tasting in the barn that didn't burn,” Favero said. “The amount of support that we got from community and tourists was heartwarming—I estimated 350 [visitors] on Saturday and 300 on Sunday.” Favero said they plan on moving forward with tastings in the barn, but are also looking at temporary tasting rooms in another location.
“Every time I saw the firefighters—hundreds of them going up and down the roads—I was so thankful,” Favero said. “They saved Healdsburg, Geyserville and Windsor and more. They are definitely our heroes."
A community bonded by adversity
For Dustin Valette, chef and owner of Valette restaurant in Healdsburg, the fire’s impact struck close to home as well: His restaurant was forced to close for eight days, and his father flies aircraft for Cal Fire, dropping fire retardant. Prior to evacuating, Valette and his restaurant staff were cooking for first responders and evacuees. “We donated the food we had stocked to cook, including all of our lobsters and Kobe steaks. For the first few days, everyone ate really well," he joked.
"We as a community went through something pretty traumatic, and it shook a lot of people,” Valette continued. "Like with a hurricane or a bad winter storm, it feels like people hunkered down for a few days, but they are starting to come back out. We sold out nights [this past] Sunday and Monday” after the evacuations were lifted.
At Jordan winery, Lisa Mattson, director of marketing and communications, said visitors were returning. “Guests with confirmed reservations for the middle of November are calling and checking in to make sure everything is OK,” Mattson said. Jordan winemaker Maggie Kruse said power was never lost at the winery, thanks to an onsite generator, which has become common at larger wineries. “We were really fortunate. We were able to get crews in for pump-overs every day but two days during the fire,” she said, noting that all of Jordan’s fruit had been picked five days prior to the fire’s start. “2019 has been a fantastic vintage. Yields are wonderful and quality was great across the board. Rich, intense fruit character.”
For Sebastopol-based vintner Paul Hobbs, the fire affirmed that Sonoma residents will pull together in times of crisis. “People were there for one another with seemingly countless acts of selflessness and sacrifice. One of our employees, a volunteer firefighter, worked the frontline in the Alexander Valley,” he said. “If there is good from all this, it’s that we stood strong as a community.”
“In terms of wine quality, I expect the [power] outages will pose no impact,” Hobbs said. “Though we were without power for an extended period, Cab fermentations were either finishing or hadn’t started (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fermentations had already completed) and the outdoor temperatures were unseasonably cool, [which was] a blessing. With limited auxiliary power we did what had to be done.”
While the Kincade fire is now effectively over, the fire threat is not. The beginning of the rainy season in Northern California has yet to materialize, and the long-term forecasts see no precipitation for at least two weeks or longer. Until the rains return, the landscape remains critically dry—and dangerously prone to fire.