Wildfires Continue to Threaten California Wine Regions

Blazes in Lake County and the Sierra Foothills have displaced thousands, while vintners are coping with the threat to harvest
Wildfires Continue to Threaten California Wine Regions
A firefighter douses flames while battling the Butte fire in the Sierra Foothills region of California. (Josh Edelson / Getty Images)
Sep 16, 2015

Updated September 16, 7:57 PM PDT.

Firefighters continue to battle two raging wildfires in Northern California that have scorched a combined 140,000 acres of land in multiple counties, destroying more than 1,000 homes and buildings and dislocating tens of thousands of people. Cool, damp weather and calm winds in the past 48 hours have helped fire teams in Lake County, just north of Napa, and Calveras county, in the Sierra Foothills, keep the infernos largely contained. Continued mild temperatures could further aid the battle.

Some local vintners are dealing with burned wineries and vineyards, while many more are juggling logistics as they try to harvest grapes around evacuation orders.

Lake County

Lake County's "Valley fire" started Saturday afternoon northeast of the town of Middletown and rapidly ripped through the southern part of the county, charring a 40-square-mile swath in just six hours. As of Wednesday morning, 2,793 firefighters have been deployed, and they have managed to slow the blaze—the fire has burned roughly 70,000 acres but is now 30 percent contained.

As of now, it's the ninth-most damaging fire ever to strike California in terms of scorched acres and destroyed homes, according to the state's fire agency. The blaze raced through several small communities in Lake County, destroying nearly 600 homes and hundreds of other buildings. Approximately 20,000 people have been evacuated and the lives of thousands more have been disrupted.

A 72-year-old disabled woman died when she was unable to flee her house, and four firefighters suffered serious burns. On Wednesday, authorities were searching for 69-year-old Leonard Neft, a retired journalist who was reported missing by his family. His burned-out car was discovered on a road he would have used to evacuate from his home.

The impact on communities will take months to assess, including the damage to the county's $60-million-dollar wine industry. Lake County is home to 35 wineries and more than 8,700 acres of vineyards, many of which have been inaccessible and without power at this critical time of year. Many Napa and Sonoma wineries use Lake County grapes as well.

"While we don't yet know the extent of vineyard and winery damage, for some local grapegrowers, the main impact has been the closure of Highway 29 in the midst of harvest, which has made it challenging for harvest workers to get to the vineyards," said Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, in a statement.

The staff at Langtry winery, in Lake County's Guenoc Valley, was forced to evacuate over the weekend; they returned Monday to find the damage was less than feared, with some vineyards hit and some homes on the property destroyed. "The actual damage to vineyards may not be as bad as we initially thought—there are areas of green once you get past the most outer vines," wrote Andrea Smalling, chief marketing officer for Foley Family Wines, Langtry's parent company.

Michael and Adawn Wood, the owners of Shed Horn Cellars, a 3,000-case winery just outside Middletown, were not as lucky. Their home and winery were both destroyed. Their tasting room survived, and most of their inventory is held offsite, allowing them to fill pending orders for now.

Danger to Napa Subsides

The blazes have also been pushing southeast toward Napa County's Pope Valley and Angwin, where more than two dozen wineries are located, including Schrader and Cade, as well as toward numerous prized Cabernet vineyards on Howell Mountain. The fire stretched a little further into Napa County on Tuesday afternoon, burning a few hundred acres south of Butts Canyon.

Most Pope Valley and Angwin residents had been evacuated over the weekend, but were allowed back into their homes Monday afternoon. Dave Guffy, director of winemaking at The Hess Collection, and his crew were unable to pick grapes on schedule in their Allomi Vineyard in Pope Valley but began Monday night. Sander Scheer, director of viticulture for Hess, said there was no visible smoke in Pope Valley and very little ash in the vineyard. 

Jeff Ames of Rudius owns a new house and vineyard on Howell Mountain. On Sunday a Cal Fire truck came down his street and the crew told him, "'We are not telling you that you have to go, but if we were you, we would leave,'" he said. "That was all we needed." Ames and his wife and daughter only had to spend one night away. "I can't imagine being one of the folks who lost their homes; we were only gone from ours for one night but that was too long when you don't know if it will be there to go back to."

For now, Howell Mountain area residents are still on an advisory evacuation warning, in case the blaze gains momentum. Mandatory evacuation orders for residents of Clearlake Riviera, Riviera West and Riviera Heights in Lake County were lifted Tuesday morning.

Calaveras and Amador Counties

Southeast of Sacramento, 4,000 firefighters continue to battle the so-called Butte fire, which has blazed since Sept. 9 in the northern part of Calaveras County and the southern edge of Amador County. As of Wednesday morning, 71,780 acres have been scorched and 233 homes destroyed. Fire teams reported that it was 45 percent contained. Authorities found the bodies of two men inside burned-out homes Tuesday in the town of Mountain Ranch.

The remote mountain area is home to a small community of wineries. "There isn't anyone here who doesn't know several people who have lost their homes," said Jeff Stai, owner of Twisted Oak Winery in Murphys. "The community is already pulling together to help those who have lost."

Thanks to severe drought conditions, the fire grew quickly, catching residents by surprise. "I've never seen that in 35 years in my career," said Kevin Locke, a former Cal Fire employee who founded Locke Vineyards in Murphys. Locke was planning to pick his 5-acre vineyard in Mountain Ranch when the blaze swept through the small town, destroying a dozen homes and charring his vines. He lost his entire crop from the vineyard but is optimistic most of the 25-year-old Zinfandel vines will survive.

Several wineries own unpicked vineyards in or near the fire perimeter and are keeping their fingers crossed that there will be usable grapes when they return. The majority of the region's vineyards are safely out of range of the fire, but road closures and evacuations have kept growers from picking their grapes in some remote areas.

Helping Hands

Communities across Northern California are extending a helping hand, providing shelter and donations to those affected. The Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga has taken in hundreds of people from Lake County, as well as their horses, cows and dogs. E. & J. Gallo Winery announced on Tuesday that it will donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross to assist with shelter, food and recovery support for those communities impacted by the Northern California wildfires.

This year's early harvest has offered one silver lining for area vintners: Many of their vineyards have already been picked. And the fire spread so rapidly in the first 24 hours that smoke taint might not be a concern for grapes still hanging on the vines. The long-term impact remains to be seen.

Warmer weather is forecast for this weekend, and Cal Fire plans to deploy more aerial firefighting equipment over the Valley fire to help with containment while the weather is still in their favor. Temperatures are expected to soar back into the mid-90s soon, and fire season has another two months to go.

—Additional reporting by Tim Fish and Augustus Weed

Courtesy Jim Caudill/Hess Collection
A view from a Pope Valley vineyard in Napa County at 3 a.m. on Sept. 16 as workers prepare to harvest grapes. The Valley fire's flames can be seen in the distance.
Disasters Fires United States California News

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