Napa Valley in Northern California -- America’s premier wine region -- couldn’t catch a break from Mother Nature in 2017. After five years of unrelenting drought, torrential rains in January, 2017, ended the dry spell, but not without dire consequences.
The storms resulted in floodwaters from overflowing rivers to spill into the vineyards. One appellation was submerged in 33 inches of water, others nearby were flooded as well. However, to the benefit of future growths, the saturation helped reduce stress on the vines, which had produced smaller crops and less wine in recent years.
The issue of not enough or too much rain was minor compared to the disaster that followed a few months later. Vintners had no way to predict, prevent or prepare for raging wildfires that ravished their properties and production in the fall of 2017.
September is normally a month of high risk for fires in Northern California. Summers are long and dry, and northerly winds can spread flames rapidly. In 2017, winds reached up to 70 mph, and fires erupted into 22 individual blazes within five days.
Fire Began In Napa Valley
It all began when the winds escalated to gale force in the renowned wine epicenter of Napa Valley. A spark somehow ignited the dry vegetation and flames scattered under a sky that turned a menacing shade of gray.
By morning, dense clouds that could be mistaken for fog began to gather, accompanied by the unmistakable scent of smoke. A surreal reddish-orange glow stained the horizon as the landscape became smothered with a layer of dusty ash.
As the fires roared, the local reaction was that of shock and disbelief. Flames torched parts of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino terroirs adjacent to the Pacific coast. By the time the intense blaze was under control, the residual stats were staggering.
According to the Napa Valley Vintners Association, 245 acres in eight counties were scorched, 9,000 homes and buildings destroyed, 10 percent of the area’s wineries damaged and, tragically, 44 fatalities. Moody’s rating agency projected that the preliminary loss totaled $4.6 billion. Insurance companies reportedly processed $3 billion in claims.
Whether California’s North Coast region could completely recover from Mother Nature’s flammable fury presented a daunting challenge. Start with Napa, about 37 miles north of San Francisco, Within its boundaries are 43,500 acres of vineyards and 475 wineries that yield 9.2 million cases of wine -- or 5 percent of the state’s total -- annually. The principal grapes grown in this area, whimsically referred to as the “Disneyland of Wine,” are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot.
Fortunately, despite the casualties, Napa’s vine and winery destruction were limited, due in part to the majority of its bottled inventory had been stored in an off-site warehouse.. But the cost of rebuilding, labor, displacement of workers, firefighting support and potential decline of tourism were typical of the issues vintners had to deal with.
Flames, Smoke Can Effect Wine
California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to speed up recovery efforts by suspending requirements that allow wineries to relocate. Local banks cooperated by offering emergency loans with lower interest rates, and extensions of outstanding credit payment deadlines.
Recovery likewise was underway in adjoining Sonoma County, where numerous homes, schools and structures were reduced to rubble. Special teams were organized to dispose of hazardous waste and to test for toxic substances. The cleanup had to be completed before residents and the U,S. Army Corps of Engineers could review the devastation.
Wine Spectator reported that though a few dozen wineries sustained some damage, about 90 percent of the 2017 harvest was off the vines. At that time, experts agreed that it was too early to determine if the flames and smoke had compromised the wine.
As luck would have it, however, the Golden State’s dusky clouds had a silver lining. A month after the wildfires turned to embers, symbolic hot-air balloons again floated over the vineyards. Most vines were spared due to their high moisture content, while some helped to secure surrounding structure by acting as fire barriers.
Equally important, the fires had only a minimal effect on the region’s productivity, according to the Wine Institute advocacy group. Despite the costly damage to properties, most of the 2017 harvest was completed.
Tourists Persuaded To Return
But many operators were left facing other long-term issues. Such as making up for financial losses, being shut down at the busiest time of year, the impact of smoke and environmental damage to future growings, and persuading tourists to return.
At Cardinale Winery in Oakville, where just one Cabernet Sauvignon vintage is derived from prized hillside appellations each year, only 50 percent of the harvest was finished when the flames erupted. There were concerns over the remaining grapes, according to owner Chris Carpenter, who had a chance to taste smoke-tainted wine in 2008. “That wasn’t very pleasant,” he said. “If we sense any of that now, we won’t bottle it.”
Gundlach Bundshu winery in Sonoma, just west of Napa, celebrated its reopening with a community party that raised $16,000 in donations for a fund to aid fire victims.
There also was a push to lure visitors back to the area, which had earned $37 million in tourist revenue in 2016. Ads in the San Francisco Chronicle were headlined, “We are open and welcome you back to Napa.” In addition, the state Tourist Commission’s “Visit California” project spent $2 million on an ad campaign to attract visitors.
Promotional efforts were supported by a unified objective to rebuild, restore and recover, with a focus to keep Napa Valley productive and popular for years to come. Though the destruction of 2017 is not easily forgotten, the outlook for succeeding years is optimistic.
Despite the many fortunes that went up in smoke, the region’s wine industry -- its lifeblood -- pulled through exceptionally well. It’s a classic case of triumph over disaster, a graphic statement that Northern California wine has risen from the ashes.