Napa Valley, Sunday night/Monday morning, 2 a.m. We’re startled awake by a loud crash, then another, as one patio umbrella topples, followed by the other. The wind chimes jangle crazily and the strong smell of smoke wafts through the open window. The restless wind gusts and moans, making a return to sleep impossible. There’s an uneasy, unsettled feeling permeating the air, but we won’t realize until day break that Napa Valley is literally encircled by flames.
To the east, Atlas Peak is on fire all the way to the Silverado Trail, and wineries, vineyards, people, and animals are in jeopardy. To the north, in Calistoga, urgent evacuations are taking place. Neighbors roust neighbors in the dark, backlit by the eerie orange light of fires so close you can feel the heat. Over the hill to the west, in Sonoma, Santa Rosa is already burning, and it’s too late to get out for some unfortunates. To the south, the link between Napa and Sonoma, Hwy 12, is closed by grass fires. Only Highway 29 remains an open escape route.
They call the dry winds that toppled our patio umbrellas Sunday night “Diablo” (Devil) winds. Diablo’s 50 mile-per-hour gusts felled power lines that night, too, so Cal Fire now tentatively speculates that they’re the probable culprits behind the fires. Four days later, the fires still ring California’s most prestigious wine regions. After a short respite Wednesday, renewed winds have the army of valiant firefighters on their heels; they’ve managed to contain less than ten percent of the conflagrations. The quaint towns of Calistoga and Geyserville—both under mandatory evacuations—are ghost towns. Napa wineries Signorello and White Rock are in ashes while Darioush, William Hill and others were only singed. Many vineyards are gone, though we won’t know how many until currently inaccessible areas such as Atlas Peak are re-opened. Sonoma and Mendocino Counties have had their viticultural casualties too, but all these property losses pale compared to the tragic human death toll…27 now, with hundreds still missing.
Most recently, Mount Veeder and the Napa Alta Heights neighborhood came under mandatory evacuation orders, but as the danger continues unabated, folks in other neighborhoods are packing up and leaving without waiting for orders. Frazzled nerves caused by constant vigilance can only take so much.
Although Napa Valley Vintners estimates that 90 percent of the harvest had been picked, the effects of the fires extend beyond the immediate danger. This is the most critical time of year within the wineries, but power outages have disrupted winemaking. Pumps and temperature controlled fermentation tanks, for example, require electricity. Winery workers too are essential. Some lost homes while others have simply been forced into unwanted “vacations” due to winery shut downs. Fall wine club shipments are on hiatus and tasting rooms are shut, along with restaurants and all the ancillary tourism businesses so essential to wine country economics.
And these are just the initial stings and disruptions. In addition to the smoke that will likely taint many of the 2017 vintage wines from these regions, the unique circumstances of viticulture mean that vineyard and winery owners will feel the pains for years to come. Signorello, for example, lost the entire 2017 vintage which was in tank, as well as most of the 2016 vintage, which was still in barrel. Only the recently bottled 2016 Chardonnay, stored elsewhere, survived.
These fires are a debacle both unprecedented and unfathomable in these famous wine regions. Yes, there have been other fires, but never so many, so deadly, so devastating. Think about it: A vine takes seven years to reach full maturity and typically, top quality Cabernet Sauvignon ages 18 months to two years prior to release. These long-term after effects explain why many wine industry veterans have often observed, “the wine business is not for the faint of heart.”