Assessing the Aftermath of the Wine Country Wildfires

Damage from Sonoma wildfires in Santa Rosa
Burned-out cars and charred homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., after wildfires spread across wine country. (Capt. Will Martin/ Army National Guard)

As if 2017 couldn’t be a crazier year, and right as Harvest was ending in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, wildfires roared through the hills and mountains and down through some of the valleys. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Scores of people lost their lives. Many, many more were counted as missing. It took more than a week to contain some of the fires. But even now that blue skies are replacing the smoke, and the fires are no longer threatening the land, it’s still difficult to understand the extent of the damage or how this will impact California’s wine industry.

A lot of friends have recently asked me what this will all mean, and while I’m far from qualified to give a definitive answer, here’s what is known, and what we should be paying attention to:

* A vast majority of the wineries and vineyards were spared. The San Jose Mercury News has detailed nearly two dozen that were either damaged or destroyed, while Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association for more than 500 Napa wineries, says 47 of the 330 members who responded to their outreach reported damage; and a handful had significant damage. Fortunately, the majority of the fruit has already been harvested — in Napa, which accounts for only 4 percent of wines made in the state, 90 percent of the fruit was already picked.

* As Dave McIntyre reported early on, it’s the people, not the vines, that are suffering the most. In fact, as the LA Times wrote, the vines acted as a natural fire break, and perhaps protected the vineyards and wineries. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the other nascent industry in the region.)

* Like most of the agriculture community, the wineries — especially this time of year — rely on immigrant workers for harvest and other important winery jobs. So not only were these workers not able to earn their wages because evacuations forced wineries to close and harvest activities to stop, but many of these workers lived in Sonoma County, where their homes were either damaged or destroyed. Of particular concern is the large population of undocumented immigrants that make up this community.  As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The lack of assistance for undocumented immigrants troubles advocates and attorneys who worry about the futures of these residents, some of whom are agricultural workers central to the economy of Wine Country, as they navigate an already expensive, housing-strapped region.

* There are still a lot of questions swirling around how the 2017 vintage will fare (But there seems to be some optimism). Smoke taint — where the smoke penetrates the grape skins and causes the wine to taste overly smokey or ashy — is usually the biggest concern when wildfires approach the vines during the run-up to Harvest (see this Wines &Vines piece about the 2008 vintage). But because a majority of the fruit had already been brought in, it may not be as much of a concern as expected. I’ve also heard people explain that because of the ripeness of the fruit (and variety of vines) still hanging, the grape skins were thick enough to protect the juice inside.

* It’s bittersweet that as with many tragedies, these horrific kinds of events, often bring out the best in humanity. So it’s no surprise, considering the strength of the wine community and the inherent respect and love for its land that bonds them, that ways to help with recovery were swiftly organized.  There are well-curated lists here and all across the Internet. But the biggest plea, is to continue drinking California wine. To continue with any plans to visit Napa an Sonoma. Or to plan a new trip to see the hard-working and kind souls of California wine country.

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