During the wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2019, which saw significant fires hit Sonoma and Napa counties, the fires thankfully arrived in October, after most of the grape harvest had been complete — and in both years, between the Tubbs, Nuns, and Kincade fires, damage to wineries was fairly minimal. That may not be the case with the disparate wildfires raging in over a dozen counties in and around the Bay Area this August, before much of the harvest has even begun.
Early reports came in this week that one of the Napa Valley's oldest wineries, The Nichelini Winery that dates to 1890, was under threat from the Hennessey Fire burning near Lake Berryessa and in the hills above St. Helena. Ultimately, though, the history winery structure was saved by firefighters, as ABC 7 reported.
The same may not be said for a number of wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as the Mercury News reports. Five wineries in the San Lorenzo Valley, Bonny Doon and Woodside/Skyline appellations have been under threat from the CZU Lightning Complex fires this week, including Big Basin Estate Vineyards & Winery, Beauregard Vineyards, McHenry Vineyard, Saison Winery, and Pescadero Creek Vineyard. It remains to be seen if they will all survive.
And apart from the direct threat to winery structures and vineyards — which themselves can sometimes act as fire breaks — the entire 2020 vintage from multiple corners of Sonoma, Napa, Santa Cruz, and Alameda counties could be ruined with smoke taint, as has happened to a few vintages in certain locations in the last two decades.
As the Chronicle reported this week, trying to give this a positive spin, we could end up seeing a glut of rosé getting made from the 2020 vintage — since the smoke tends only to penetrate grape skins, and white and rosé wines tend not to have much skin contact in the winemaking process. Some red-wine makers in 2017 had to toss out whole crops due to that ashtray-tasting taint. But those red grapes could get turned into rosé, at least for wineries where a lot of rosé makes sense.
Depending on smoke patterns, it's possible that grapes growing on the Napa Valley floor and in certain areas of Sonoma will be spared the dreaded smoke taint — but things aren't looking great.
And this is just another blow to the wine industry in an already difficult year, with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting tasting-room sales, tourism, and the growing and harvesting process itself due to extra safety precautions. And the recent heatwave wasn't doing the grapes any favors anyway — with extreme heat able to shrivel them into raisins.
Tony Bugica, director of farming for Atlas Vineyard Management, tells the Chronicle "It's the perfect storm" of disasters, and "2020 is like nothing we’ve ever been through." And winemakers across the region are feeling deja vu after a similar heatwave in 2017 was capped off by the wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties.
So, cross your fingers that there will be wine to drink come next year.
We're going to need it.
Photo from October 2017 by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images