The Grapes of Nature’s Wrath

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Do you remember Smokey the Bear, the icon of fire safety and wildfire prevention? I stopped whatever I was doing to listen to his message on the television.

It was a simpler time, but Smokey’s message still rings true; prepare as much as possible and when necessary leave and get your family to a safe place. This was reality last October in Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Yuba County, Grass Valley, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, California. Although a forest fire normally benefits the land by clearing debris and opening fresh spaces for seeds to take their place, the rampage of October’s wrath of fire will be felt for years to come.

Every news outlet covered the numerous stories; property, businesses, family homes, vehicles, wineries and, most importantly, people’s lives and livelihoods are forever changed. The Napa and Sonoma wine regions employ over 100,000 workers. The wine industry contributes more than $27 billion dollars to local economies and maintains a multi-billion-dollar international influence. Many layers of employees who work the wineries, vineyards and hospitality properties in a variety of capacities were affected.

Across the country, oenophiles may be uncertain about the wine industry’s recovery and the global impact of the fires that left pools of wine as bottles burst from sheer heat. Indeed, there are wine-producing properties that were completely destroyed and it will take a great deal of resources to bring those back to pre-fire levels. Some wines still in barrels for at least another three years were lost in flame. It’s heartbreaking to see a generations-old winery reduced to a smoldering rubble. When wine is the livelihood of so many, how do they recover, regain strength and hopefully prosperity?

The good news for the wine industry is that the grapevines had completed their growing cycle, developing the tough skins that protect the grape from most environmental harm. Harvest was nearly complete; the beautiful pinot noir and chardonnay grapes had mostly been harvested along with many other varietals. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and some zinfandel grapes remained on the vine. This late hanging fruit may have a bit of smoke, but only time will tell.

Wine grapevines are resilient. Containing nearly 50 percent water, they weather tremendous and extreme conditions. Don’t count out these vineyards just yet. They may need a season or two to recover but they have the potential to come back. Vineyards make good barriers to the structures beyond, acting as effective fire breaks. In addition, biochar, the finely grained, highly porous charcoal soil amendment, was created locally. Although the effects of ash on the soil’s pH balance won’t be known yet, there is now an abundance of charcoal that some vineyard managers will utilize.

The influence of Napa and Sonoma wines is international. Whether the bottle is purchased directly from a Napa or Sonoma winery or if the wine grapes grown in these regions have been purchased by wine producers throughout the world, the discussions about the effects of the fires will occur globally. You may hear the term “smoke taint” popping up in conversations among wine enthusiasts. Because the grapes were fully formed and quite matured at the point of harvest, the risk of the environmental smoke taste impressing itself onto the finished wine product is low. Earlier in the season, when grapes were newly developing buds, fires of this extent would have had a deeper effect.

The wines of the iconic regions of Napa and Sonoma are a treasure and a tribute to the hard work and perseverance of so many in the industry, from field to tasting room. Now more than ever, the families of farmers and winemakers need our support as they rebuild their lives and their livelihoods. Those who are well insured will recover and rebuild their properties as well as their businesses. In many ways, supporting businesses will now see a resurgence in business through construction and consumer goods purchases, placing revenue back into the economy to restore support and hope to this unique appellation.

My grandmother lost her home to a random summer fire. Twenty years later, it’s still very fresh to her as she recalls the mementos of her childhood and 11 children going up in smoke after 75 years of hard work. I think of these Napa/Sonoma families, business owners, friends and colleagues during this time and my heart breaks, knowing October 2017 will be forever imprinted on their memories as they begin again.

I opened a wine from Calistoga when the containment of the fires was announced, celebrating the efforts of the dedicated responders that traveled from other states to help, honoring those we lost and appreciating the craftsmanship of this one single bottle of pinot noir. Somehow it was symbolic. Wine from Napa and Sonoma will continue to flourish and we will continue to treasure the hard work of every person along the Silverado Trail. ■