USA: The wine business, for all of the romance associated with it, can be brutally difficult. Ill-timed frost, too little rain or too much rain, extended periods of abnormal heat, viruses, insects, mold, fungus, and more regularly conspire to bewilder and vex the farmers who grow the grapes, as well as the winemakers who deliver the juice to the table.
But what has been happening since Sunday night in California’s famed wine country is an order of magnitude beyond. Once the final accounting is done—in terms of lives lost, structures damaged and destroyed, vineyards burned, insurance policies claimed and paid out, and dollars spent—it may well prove to be without precedent.
News reports are indicating that these may be among the worst, most destructive fires in the state’s history. As of Tuesday, authorities said there were 17 separate fires across Northern California that had resulted in 15 deaths, and almost 120,000 acres had been torched. About 2,000 homes and other buildings have been destroyed so far.
As with every large-scale and still-unfolding tragedy, misinformation is plentiful, and the picture can change from one minute to the next. And with widespread power outages and evacuations throughout the fire-affected areas, communication with people on the ground is understandably not reliable.
Via text, Scott Turnbull, sommelier and beverage manager of Solbar, said: “I’m not sure anything that I can say can convey the feelings of essential helplessness when faced with these massive fires. It was terrible luck that on Sunday night, when normally weather is mild and calm year round, we had great winds gusting up to 50+ mph that spread the fires so quickly. Cell phone coverage is still out in many places, and some friends in Napa still don’t have power back on yet. When you see photos of Santa Rosa where neighborhoods have been leveled, it helps to show just how lucky most of Napa is (though I never want to lessen the tragedy of those who have lost their homes and businesses). As it is still so recent, we’re all still working to make sure people are safe, animals are cared for, and trying to get to the next steps, whatever those are.”
How this will impact the 2017 vintage—and therefore, to a significant extent, the financial fortunes of so many producers—remains to be seen. The trade association Napa Valley Vintners said in a press release, “We are assessing information on how the fires might affect the 2017 harvest and the wine industry specifically, but it will be some time before we have any specific information along these lines. It should be noted that the majority of Napa Valley’s grapes were picked before the fires started [Sunday] night.”
What’s certain is that many producers will face unimaginable hardship. In the world of wine, especially among smaller producers but certainly among the larger ones as well, one catastrophic vintage can have long-reaching effects, or perhaps even crushing ones. Entire libraries of wine could be destroyed, countless barrels and tanks awaiting vinification or aging wiped out, plans for expanding operations and vineyard land thrown into question, or thrown out the window.
According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle by wine writer Esther Mobley, “Depending on how widespread the destruction of vines is across Wine Country, it could mark a severe shortage of grapes for years to come. When vineyards are planted, it can take three to five years for them to bear fruit. Additionally, most Napa and Sonoma wineries hold at least three vintages of wine in barrel at any given time, not to mention the large inventory of bottles that many wineries hold back for years.”
In addition to wineries like Signorello Estate, Chimney Rock, Stags’ Leap Winery and more that have sustained significant damage, there are the countless producers who don’t own wineries or vineyards, but who craft wine in communal wine-production facilities and store their aging and finished wines in special warehouses. The impact on their businesses could be utterly devastating.
Recovery will likely take a long time. But even in the face of this still-unfolding tragedy, Turnbull told me, people are trying to look ahead. “As far as long term impacts, there is a great feeling of resiliency,” he texted, “and though the fires are devastating, I’ve not heard anything but optimistic chatter around town. At Calmart this morning (Calistoga’s market), people were trading news and speaking about what next needs to be done, which was great to hear.”