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Fires Under Control, California Wineries Get Back to Harvest

Lake County and Sierra Foothill vintners assess damage to vineyards and homes
Firefighters put out a fire that destroyed a home in Middletown, Calif.
Photo by: David McNew/Getty Images
Firefighters put out a fire that destroyed a home in Middletown, Calif.

Aaron Romano
Posted: September 23, 2015

California firefighters appear to have turned a corner in stopping the destructive fires in Lake County and Calaveras County. The state’s fire agency, CalFire, reported Tuesday that both blazes were 75 to 80 percent contained. Most evacuation orders have been lifted, and residents have returned to see if their homes survived. Vintners have resumed picking grapes, hoping the rest of harvest goes smoothly.

As of Tuesday, more than 76,000 acres had burned in Lake County, destroying 1,910 structures, many of which are believed to be single-family homes, making the Valley fire one of the most destructive in California's history.

Power has returned to the entire county, roads have reopened and 90 percent of Lake County wineries are back in business and resuming harvest. Last week’s cool temperatures and light winds kept the grapes in good condition. Concerns of smoke taint are diminishing as well. According to a statement from the Lake County Wine Grape Commission, the fire has not affected an estimated 85 percent of vineyards.

Andy Beckstoffer said he has done multiple tests on fruit from his vineyards in Red Hills and has found no detectable trace of smoke taint. “The only thing the fire did for us was delay harvest by a few days, but we’re back on schedule and everything is just fine.”

Dave Guffy, director of winemaking for Hess, said that the fire stopped just west of their vineyard near Hidden Valley. Most of their vineyards were not in imminent danger, thankfully.

Gallo’s Snows Lake Vineyard reportedly suffered some minor damage. “We have resumed harvest and will continue to monitor the situation closely,” said Lon Gallagher, brand manager for Gallo.

To the southwest, in the Sierra Foothills, the Butte fire in Calaveras County had burned 70,868 acres as of Tuesday, destroying nearly 1,000 structures. All evacuation orders have been changed to advisories and all road closures have been lifted.

The majority of the Butte fire damage didn’t directly impact wineries and vineyards, with only about 14 acres of grapes lost. Steve Collum, who operates the vineyard management firm Vineyard Concepts, told Wine Spectator that the 9-acre Flicker Oaks vineyard near Mountain Ranch lost its entire crop. Collum estimated the loss at $35,000.

Help continues to pour in for those in need. The Lake County Wine Grape Commission, Lake County Winery Association and Lake County Wine Alliance have joined together to lead a fund-raising drive called #LakeCountyRising, aiming to raise cash to help those affected by the fire. Beckstoffer Vineyards announced a donation of $50,000 to the campaign on Sept. 21. “We’re part of the community,” said Beckstoffer. “We have major vineyard holdings in Lake County, and many of our people live in Lake County.”

Brassfield Estate in Lake County’s High Valley has given a temporary winemaking home to Shed Horn Cellars, which lost its winery in the fire. Over in Amador County, just north of Calveras, Renwood Winery donated $1 for every bottle sold over a three-day period, and also accepted cash donations, clothing, children’s toys and books, toiletries and animal supplies for fire victims. Several other local businesses have arranged small, private fund-raisers.

While both regions hope they’ve seen the last of fires this year, Monterey County vintners had their own scare in recent days. A wildfire broke out on Sept. 19 just outside of the Carmel Valley wine region, burning 1,086 acres over three days and destroying 11 homes. As of Tuesday, the fire was 65 percent contained and wineries and vineyards were reporting no significant damage so far.

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