From the Vineyard: Fires and Wine

Those of us living in wine country of California—specifically Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties—underwent a week of terror during wildfires in October. More than 40 people died and thousands lost their homes.

But the fires had very little impact on the wine industry or the wine it makes. A week after the first, almost all wineries were open and looking for visitors in their tasting rooms, and they had plenty of wine to sell.

There are a number of reasons why the fires won’t affect the wines significantly:

First, grapes from this year won’t be on the market as wine for at least six months for the lightest whites and roses, and many reds won’t be sold for years. In addition, most of this year’s grapes had been harvested. Only about 10 percent of the fruit remained on the vines in the areas hit by wildfires. The grapes still remaining were mostly tough-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, and any smoke residue on them can be rinsed off.

The remaining grapes mostly are big reds that are aged in oak barrels that are toasted inside. This contributes some of the same flavors, though there’s a difference between gentle controlled toasting of selected species of aged oaks and burning pines, madrones, eucalyptus and native oaks, obviously. For egregious cases, sophisticated filters can remove smoke taint, though they also may remove desired aromas and tastes.

And as for why the wildfires didn’t have much impact on the wineries? Only a few actually burned. More lost outbuildings and equipment and a number had plantings singed.

But grapevines are pretty fire resistant, particularly when they’re still covered with green leaves and filled with moisture, as most were. Grapevines provide a natural firebreak.

It’s the forests, bushes and other vegetation on rugged hills and mountains that burned. The fires generally stopped when they got to vineyards, though they may have cooked the outer edges of vineyards and certainly melted irrigation hoses! If the Napa Valley floor weren’t covered with vines, the fires would have been far worse.

Fires did burn many isolated houses in some rural areas, and they raced through some housing areas in Santa Rosa and the upscale semi-rural development at Silverado Resort outside Napa. This was partly due to unusual western “downslope” windstorms from the Sierra that reached almost hurricane force (75 mph), feeding the flames and dispersing embers miles. Locally, they’re called Diablo winds—“diablo” being Spanish for the Devil. (They’re called Santa Ana or Santana [“Satan”] winds in southern California).

Interestingly, no houses in the incorporated cities in Napa County burned, but it was only because of great firefighting and ill winds that did blow well in this case.
If you were to visit wine country today, you’d find beautiful warm and sunny skies with no sign of the fires unless you noted some hillsides as being darker than usual—or happened upon areas most tourists never see.

But there aren’t many tourists, as national media made it sound as the whole area burned down. Instead, it’s tough on those affected, but most people and places are back to normal—and it’s very unlikely to have any significant impact on wine supply or quality.

Paul Franson lives in Napa Valley, CA.

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