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Wild Fires and Wine Country

We didn’t think about it last night, but my wife made something of an ominous comment: she said that the warm wine blowing through the Bay Area, directly from the east, reminded her a lot of a Santa Ana in Southern California. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it basically means that the winds, instead of our usual on shore flow off the ocean, which not only cools California, but provides much needed moisture in the air, switched directions.  Winds blowing from the east are generally warm and dry.  It’s the first sign of fire danger throughout the state.

We woke up this morning to heavy smoke at our house.  No ash though, so we knew that the fires were pretty far away. We’ve been through wildfires before.  Too often actually.  One of my first memories of living in San Diego as a kid, was getting sent home from school in the middle of the day because the ash started falling onto school.  Some kids thought it might be snow, alas the innocence of first graders.  I had just moved from New York, snow doesn’t smell. Much later during the Witch Fire, we were evacuated from our home, we went to my inlaws place, largely surrounded by more suburbs and golf courses, it was long considered one of the more fireproof neighborhoods around, with newer developments even designed as shelter in place spots. We got evacuated that next night, only to watch in horror as much of the neighborhood where we grew up was ravaged by wildfire.  Friends parents lost homes and it took almost a decade before the neighborhood was rebuilt.  The character of the place in some ways changed.

After checking the news this morning, it became fairly obvious that we were getting smoke blown to our house from fires in both Napa as well as Sonoma.

At first, the Napa blaze was getting most of the attention, causing evacuations and issues outside of downtown Napa, largely in an area of Napa Valley called Atlas Peak and to a lesser extent, Coombsville.  The fire has also destroyed wineries on the Silverado Trail in Napa already as of 10am Pacific.

Neither of those are major population centers, but it makes me think of friends, especially those on Atlas Peak where the mountain offers only one way up and the same way down.  At points the two lanes offer only access for one car, so I hope the folks at Vinroc and Dos Lagos are safe and sound. I have no doubt that there’s going to property damage and long term issues if the fire burns through Atlas Peak and Coombsville.  I am hopeful though that there won’t be a loss of life.

Here’s some of what it looked like leaving Atlas Peak in the middle of the night:

The fires in Sonoma are much more similar to what we experienced in San Diego.

I want to be as clear as possible about what wine country is experiencing right now: this is a disaster.  People are going to lose homes and businesses, sometimes both. It’s going to be an incredibly long and complicated path back.

The most concerning fire in Sonoma started only a ways from downtown Santa Rosa, south of Windsor.  It’s a place where a LOT of wine is made in warehouses, although many of those are situated west of the 101 freeway because the land tends to be cheaper.  To the east, where the fire current sits, it’s largely agricultural.  Yes, there’s a lot of grapes.  There’s also plenty of other agriculture and tourist facilities. Grapes and vines are going to be lost across wine country over the next week.  But, Santa Rosa is a city of almost 200,000 people with other neighboring cities adding at least that many people as well.  This is going to be a disaster for all of them in one way or another.

Not far down the 101 from where the fire began there’s a couple of hospitals.  Both Kaiser and Sutter have hospitals, on a small hill overlooking the freeway and part of the valley below.  It appears those hospitals had to be evacuated this morning.  We have friends, I definitely have winemakers that I know, living within the evacuation zone.  Some of likely to have lost homes.  One custom crush where we’ve spent a lot of time of late, Punchdown Cellars, is right in the fire’s path.  As it stands now, it’s unclear if it still stands.  The Kmart and Mountain Mike’s Pizza across the street burned at 5am.

Since this is a wine site, you’re likely wondering what a fire means for wine.

Really, we’re talking about 2 different issues.  The first issue is for grapes hanging on the vine and smoke. Smoke taint is a very real issue, nobody wants that in their wine.  The honest answer though to your logical question is that no one knows exactly how much smoke, or for how long, it takes to effect the final wine that’s produced.  I’d suspect, thinner skinned grapes are more likely to take in smoke than thicker skinned versions.  If the wind cooperates, I’d suspect Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon would have this smoky day as a footnote, instead of the first sentence when we talk about this vintage. That is, if the vines survive the fire itself.  As the morning has moved along, that’s seemed less likely.

The second issue deals with wines being fermented.  Thinking of Punchdown, depending on where a wine is in its fermentation cycle, you are going to have punchdowns and other winemaking jobs missed at least today and likely for another day or two afterward.  Less manipulations like that, leads to wine that’s lighter in style. For some wineries that’s an issue.  I doubt most consumers notice that though.

There’s been some debate about how much smoke taint effects wine that’s being fermented. Other than a vintage in Australia about a decade ago, it isn’t like we have a ton of research in that regard.  There has already been some talk about fining and filtering that can remove smoke taint, but the effectiveness of that is often debated.

I’ll keep you updated, but this is a major tragedy for wine country.

There’s hardly an area in the North Bay that isn’t going to be effected today.

I’ll try and keep this updated throughout the course of the week.

One thought on “Wild Fires and Wine Country

  1. Thank you

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