California Wildfires Take Toll on Wine Country

Arielle Feger | 23 Oct 2020

Over 4.1 million acres of land in California have been burned by wildfires since the beginning of 2020, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Among the most affected areas are Sonoma and Napa Counties, which are home to some of the largest producers of wine in the state as well as popular tourist destinations.

The wildfires have negatively impacted businesses across California, from vineyards and farms to restaurants and hotels, most of which are already hurting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One specific fire, called the Glass Incident Fire, destroyed almost 200 businesses in wine country, according to Eater. The site compiled a list of all 194 businesses that were affected, including Behrens Family Winery, Burgess Cellars, Calistoga Ranch, Davis Estates, Hourglass Winery, Meadowood Resort, School House Vineyard, and Tofanelli Vineyards. Damage ranges from some destroyed equipment to entire buildings burned down.

One business, Fairwinds Estate Winery, located in Calistoga, said on its website, “Most of the Fairwinds Winery and its tasting room has been very seriously damaged by the recent Napa Valley fires. We are pleased to report our people are all safe. Our hearts go out to friends and neighbors, many of whom have lost their homes and all their belongings. This will change us, but it will not reduce us.”

Vince Tofanelli, owner of the Tofanelli Family Vineyard, also in Calistoga, told the Los Angeles Times that all of the vineyard’s structures were destroyed in the Glass Incident Fire, including an old redwood barn, a water tower, two homes, and outbuildings. The vineyard was purchased by Tofanelli’s grandparents in 1929.

“I can’t begin to express my frustration with these continuing wildfires around here,” he said. “It’s very heartbreaking.”

In addition to property damage, the fires, or more specifically, the smoke, can change the taste of the wine. Noah Dorrance, owner of Healdsburg-based Reeve Wines, told the San Francisco Chronicle that in every grape he’s tried, he could “taste and smell this ashy, barbecued flavor, kind of like a campfire.” 

But it’s hard to assess how widespread the affected area is. Some wineries are sending samples of their grapes and juice to private laboratories to be analysed for smoke taint compounds, reports Wine Spectator. “We are testing every vineyard by doing mostly micro-fermentations and, so far, we have not had to reject any fruit yet,” said Kim Stare Wallace, president of Dry Creek Vineyard, also in Healdsburg. 

The cattle industry is also suffering. According to Bloomberg, the fires have destroyed many parts of the 38 million acres of rangeland managed by cattle ranchers. Many have struggled to evacuate themselves and their livestock safely. While this may not cause any beef shortages or price increases, it is a devastating blow to ranchers, some of whom have lost more than three quarters of their herds.

“Ranchers across the state are facing extreme losses from this year’s wildfires in California, some of which are irreplaceable,” Katie Roberti, director of communications for the California Cattlemen Association told SFA News Daily. “Forage, fences, barns, and cattle have all burned. The majority of ranches in California are still family-owned and are made up of land that has been passed down for generations. The reality of the situation for some is that the California wildfires have destroyed decades of family legacies.”

Kirk Wilbur, vice president of government affairs at the CCA, told SFA News Daily that more regulatory oversight around fire policy is the key to prevention. “Ranchers impacted by this year’s fires will need to rebuild, and all of us will need to work to ensure that we never again have a wildfire season like 2020. Those who have been hard-hit by this year’s blazes still need to assess the damage and take stock of their losses. But whether they were hit or spared by this year’s infernos, I think nearly every rancher is clear-headed about the bigger steps that lie ahead: California and the federal government need to get their acts together in terms of fire policy.”

The wildfires have also impacted California’s cannabis industry, especially the businesses that grow crops outdoors, reports The Mercury News. Tina Gordon was forced to evacuate her 40-acre cannabis cultivation site, Moon Made Farms, taking only cannabis seeds as she left. “There was a stillness in the air that was absolutely terrifying,” Gordon said. “No birds. No wildlife. Everything had taken cover.”

Luckily, her farm was mostly spared, with only some vegetables not on automatic irrigation lost. Still, as with wine, there is a concern that the damage from the heat, ash, and smoke will affect the quality and the safety of the cannabis plants. Jill Ellsworth, founder and chief executive officer of Willow Industries, which offers decontamination and remediation for cannabis flower and harvested plant material, said some clients have reported instances of smoke damage. She noted that if the environmental stress leads to smaller buds and lower yields, it could lead to losses down the supply chain.

Related: Western Fires Impact Specialty Food BusinessesSan Francisco Restaurants Forced to Close Due to Wildfires.