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The Burning Question for California Wine Country

The Burning Question for California Wine Country

Down the hall from Tom Knecht’s office in St. Helena, hanging on a wall near the reception area, is a memento from the Before Times: an official photograph of several dozen California firefighters in their dress blues, commemorating the 2015 fire season.

It was a memorable year for the Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, commonly known as Cal Fire. The Valley Fire of September 2015 was the kind of experience that firefighters talk about for years, a “once-in-a-career event,” said Knecht, the unit’s division chief.  

The fire traveled 11 miles in about 12 hours and burned 76,000 acres, destroying almost 2,000 structures, killing four people and putting four firefighters in the hospital for weeks. It was “the single most devastating thing the unit had ever seen,” Knecht said. “We thought, ‘We really need to remember this because this will never happen again.’”

Two years later, in October 2017, the Tubbs Fire ripped through Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. Aerial images of the conflagration appear supernatural. It was the most destructive fire in California history. The next year the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, to the north, with a speed and intensity that seemed apocalyptic. Then the Kincade roared through in 2019, marking a new worst for Sonoma County.

The worst was still to come. A series of fires swept wine country beginning in August 2020, engulfing the region in smoke and flame for weeks. Residents who had survived the serial calamities of the past half-decade swore they’d never seen anything like the fires last year. Vineyard owners with expansive views of some of the most storied agriculture in the world could barely see past their swimming pools. Vineyard workers gagged just standing still.

In the American West since 2000, an area larger than California has burned. In California in 2020, more than 4 million acres burned. In wine country, according to the Santa Rosa-based Press Democrat, in the past six years there were 23 major fires totaling nearly 1.5 million acres, “the equivalent of 130% of Sonoma County.” Sonoma County is larger than Rhode Island.

The Burning Question for California Wine Country

The fires threaten both a way of life and a thriving, much-admired industry. Napa wine alone injects about $34 billion into the U.S. economy. Now the Michelin-starred life of Napa Valley, a rarefied micro-culture marked by affluence, natural beauty and the aesthetic alchemy that transforms farms into terroir, and grape juice into something else altogether, has been shaken. Relentless drought and fire have drawn down the wine industry’s boisterous confidence as surely as they’ve sapped the region’s water supply.

“Everybody in this industry knows somebody who ran for their life or who was directly affected, lost their home,” said James McDonough, founder of Wren Hop Vineyards in Sonoma. The wine industry in Napa, with about 45,000 acres under cultivation, lost an estimated $2 billion last year. Across Napa and Sonoma, wineries burned. Vineyards were scorched. Inventory was destroyed. Smoke ruined much of what remained.

This year, meanwhile, has been the hottest and driest yet. The air is like a desert breeze, leaving a sandy tickle at the back of the throat. The body requires constant hydration. Everyone dreads the impending return of fire season, which used to coincide with harvest in the fall. Now, some fear that the notion of a season is itself a relic of a bygone era when fire could still be contained.   

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The best agricultural land in California’s San Joaquin Valley can go for as much as $40,000 an acre. In Napa, prime agricultural plots cost more than 10 times that. Few start a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma to get rich; the margins in the wine business can be tough. The typical order of things is to get rich first, then realize a long-held dream of buying a vineyard. Some owners are dilettantes. Some are multinationals. Others come to wine country to learn and work, applying the same energy, ambition and competitiveness to winemaking that they used to power success in other fields. Many stay — entranced by the land, the work, the culture, the wine.

Soil, like expertise, is part of the equation. But the region’s temperate climate is key to its status as one of the greatest wine regions of the world. According to Napa Valley Vintners, the dry, Mediterranean climate that defines Napa prevails over just 2% of the earth’s surface.

The grapes that make the world’s greatest wines, said Eric Sklar, a co-founder of Alpha Omega winery in Napa, “grow in a very narrow band of latitude around the northern hemisphere, and the same around the southern hemisphere. Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, so on. Those grapes like very specific climate, which is hot, dry summers, plenty of water in the winter to refill the water table, and they like cool nights.”

Driving north on Silverado Trail, from the city of Napa to Calistoga, you can see the complex world that climate, artistry and entrepreneurship have built, where an ancient art rooted in soil is marketed, three-quarters of a liter at a time, to affluent consumers. Wine tourists dip in and out of vineyards for tastings and tours, or roam the two-lane roads in rented convertibles.

Nearing Calistoga, however, peripheral vision begins to cause discomfort. The withered leaves on that tree. That curiously disfigured branch. A blackened tree stump. Eventually, the charcoal-colored flora is too pervasive to ignore.

The Burning Question for California Wine Country

The driveway to Jones Family Vineyards, off Silverado Trail, is unmarked. But the scars of last year’s Glass Fire are visible every inch up the long, narrow driveway. Blackened trees lie horizontal across the ground, like felled warriors, on either side of the drive. A battle was lost here.

At the top of the drive is enough room to park beside an unblemished home, spared by the flames. Rick Jones was a McKinsey consultant and a supermarket executive before emigrating to Napa. He bought this land in 1993 and established his estate wine brand with his daughters in 1996. They produce fewer than 1,000 cases a year. Like many small operations in the valley, Jones Family Vineyards has cultivated a direct-to-consumer business for its sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, the latter of which currently sells for $150 a bottle.

The fire consumed about one third of the vines on the property, which has a commanding view of the Napa Valley and a more intimate perspective on the hillside destruction below the house. “We lost the first six or seven vines in every row down here,” Jones said, pointing to a slope beneath his home. “It’s unclear what will be the productivity of the vines.”

When you add up the fire damage to the 10-acre vineyard, Jones said, it reaches the high six figures. “We’re going to have to bear all the cost,” he said.

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Fire, however, is not the primary source of wine industry pain. Smoke is. Vineyards that were miles from flames saw crops destroyed by smoke, which clings to grape skins and induces chemical changes.

Smoke taint produces toxic compounds. “Smoky-type compounds can affect vines at different growth stages,” writes Richard Carey in Wine Business. The danger grows as veraison — the ripening of the grapes — progresses. Yet even when you’re hunting for it, evidence of smoke taint can be hard to discern. To defend against the smoke’s toxic compounds, a vine “adds a sugar-type molecule to the offending compound, and that turns it into an innocuous, non-aromatic version,” Carey writes.

The industry is undergoing a crash course in the chemistry of smoke. Pre-fire and post-fire consulting and related services are robust growth industries. Testing labs were so backed up last fall that they couldn’t handle demand from frantic winemakers.

There is much still to learn. Grapes that test free of smoke taint can nonetheless produce wine that tests positive. And the exact quantity of taint that a vintage can survive is a matter of science, expertise and guesswork. “There’s so little that’s known about it,” said Joe Reynoso, a former derivatives trader who in the mid-1990s bought the Sonoma vineyard where he now produces Crescere Wines.

Much of the 2020 vintage in Napa and Sonoma was destroyed by vintners who couldn’t trust their own grapes. “At our co-op winery, we were supposed to bring in 1,500 tons of fruit,” Reynoso said. “We brought in 500.”

James McDonough, whose Wren Hop vineyard in Sonoma produces pinot noir, said smoke taint doesn’t produce a cozy “toasted marshmallow” affect. “It tastes like an ashtray.” When McDonough’s 2020 grapes were tested for smoke taint, they exceeded the recommended threshold. “For the first time, we were forced to surrender the crop due to smoke taint and high threshold detection,” he emailed. “Textbook bust.”

The Burning Question for California Wine Country

The pervasiveness of smoke and flame has not aided the wine industry’s standing with insurance companies, which was already a little dodgy owing to the vagaries of ultra-premium-priced agriculture. “There’s a crisis now among winery owners, because so many of us have been denied coverage with no alternative,” Reynoso said.  California’s FAIR plan, an insurer of last resort, doesn’t cover many wineries, though legislation is moving to make it more accessible to the wine industry by covering “agricultural infrastructure.”

It’s not hard to see things from the insurers’ perspective. Napa and Sonoma winemaking are in the crosshairs of chronic drought and recurring mega-fire. An industry that depends on a carefully calibrated climate, adequate water supplies and complex soil composition is undergoing severe change. Last year was catastrophic. The current year looks frightening. It would be hard to make a case that everything is fine.

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I am standing on Crystal Springs Road, just off Silverado Trail, repeating variations of the same dumbfounded query: How?

This area was already burning when Cal Fire set up a command post here on the morning of Sept. 27, 2020, when the Glass Fire roared down the hills toward Silverado Trail. (The fire is named for a nearby road.) Fire swept both sides of the road here, scorching trees and shrubs on one side, a field on the other. Justin Benguerel, a Cal Fire battalion chief, is trying to help me understand how a flaming ember could have been ejected from a nearby hill and sent sailing clear across Napa Valley on a hellfire of wind.

The valley is about 5 miles wide at its widest part, but perhaps only a mile wide here. Still, a mile seems a long way for an inflamed piece of wood to travel in the air. If the ember were small enough to travel that far, wouldn’t the rush of wind, and the duration of the flight, extinguish it? If it were big enough to remain flammable, wouldn’t it be too heavy to travel such a distance?