Wildfires have ravaged Napa Valley. Will California’s wine industry survive?
In late summer, Napa Valley was forced to confront a harsh reality: Harvest season in this world-famous wine region is now also fire season.
The unprecedented fire events of 2020 have left little doubt that California’s wine country has entered a new, dangerous era. First, in August, came a lightning siege that sparked fires throughout the state. One of the lightning strikes touched down in Napa. The resulting fire would ultimately grow to over 360,000 acres, resulting in five deaths.
Then, in late September, a separate blaze known as the Glass Fire erupted in Napa Valley. It would soon become the most destructive wildfire in the history of this valley—worse, even, than the record-setting fires of 2017. This time, 1,235 buildings have been destroyed, including nearly 300 homes.
Battalion Chief Gino Degraffenreid led a strike team of firefighters in Napa Valley on October 2, 2020. Dry vegetation and a forecast for north winds threatened to further spread the already devastating Glass Fire.
Northern Napa Valley, reliably verdant and lush at this time of year, became an eerie landscape of charred earth and white ash. Grapevines were blackened, wineries reduced to rubble.
Napa is America’s most celebrated and important wine region, the figurehead of California’s $40 billion statewide industry.
But the disasters of 2020, compounded by the serial devastation of recent years, have thrown it into existential crisis.
Climate change, which was already threatening to alter the taste of Napa’s prized Cabernet Sauvignons, is now fueling fires that seem to turn more destructive each time.
(Related: Witness California’s record blazes through the eyes of frontline firefighters.)
The implications ripple through every facet of life here. The perennial presence of wildfire threatens the farmworkers who must choose whether to work in oppressively smoky air or not work at all.
It imperils the local economies of wine country’s towns, which have grown heavily dependent on tourism—to the tune of $2.23 billion in visitor spending in a typical Napa Valley year.
And it endangers the viability of the wine itself: By one estimate, complications from fire and smoke may prevent as much as 80 percent of Napa Valley’s 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes being made into wine.
Wildfire, in California wine country, has the power to destroy not only buildings—but also the region’s economic and cultural fabric.
Road to recovery
Less than 24 hours after the Glass Fire exploded, one of Napa Valley’s grandest wineries could be seen engulfed in flames. The hand-quarried stone winery of Château Boswell, located on the storied Silverado Trail, was decimated.
“All my personal possessions were lost,” says owner Susan Boswell, “but most importantly my family history,” including the first bottles of wine that her late husband had made in 1979. (Also gone, she added, were letters that her ancestor Aaron Burr had written to his wife Theodosia.)
Fire crews and vineyard employees worked together on October 2, 2020, to clear flammable brush and douse flames at the Bergman Family Winery south of Calistoga.
From there, the fire moved relentlessly through the valley’s northern stretches, damaging structures on at least 26 wine and vineyard estates.
Castello di Amorosa, a popular tourist hub modeled on a medieval Tuscan castle that took 15 years and $40 million to construct, saw one of its main buildings destroyed.
Newton Vineyard, an ambitious property owned by luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey that had just completed renovations a few weeks earlier, was in ruins.
But most of the Glass Fire’s devastation occurred at small-scale, family-run wine estates—names Behrens, Sherwin, Hourglass, and Hunnicutt. Historic buildings dating to the mid-19th century at Burgess, Cain, and others went up in flames. Along with them went inventories of bottled wine, in some cases the entire production of multiple years.
Many vintners defied evacuation orders to stay behind and defend their properties by cutting fire lines with chainsaws, stashing propane tanks away from flames and dousing their buildings in water. They had one important helper.
While Napa’s landscape is clearly fire-prone, it is also dotted with natural firebreaks: grapevines.
As living plants, vines are standing wells of water and have consistently shown themselves capable of slowing the path of fire, sometimes even saving structures.
“The undergrowth, the native grass, is typically what burns,” says Chris Howell, winemaker at Cain Vineyard. “But by now, we know that the vines themselves don’t burn.”
Despite the extent of the losses, most of the 215 wineries located within Napa Valley’s evacuation zones were still standing by the time the Glass Fire was reaching a stable containment level, one week later—thanks to some unknowable equation of firefighting, vineyards, wind patterns and luck. But the hard questions were only starting to surface.
Keeping workers safe
One of those questions pertains to vineyard workers, a largely Latinx immigrant population that forms the backbone of California’s wine industry. The role of these workers is never more crucial than from August through October, when they pick the grapes that will ultimately become wine.
But picking grapes when the air is thick with wildfire smoke can be hazardous to the health of these workers, who already had to reckon with the risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job.
“The Latinx population sustains the local economy here, but there are very clear racialized disparities,” says Gabriel Machabanski, associate director of the Graton Day Labor Center, a community organization supporting immigrants in Sonoma County, to Napa’s west.
Many Napa and Sonoma wineries proceeded with the harvest despite the fires. In fact, the need to pick the grapes felt even more urgent for wine quality, to minimize the grapes’ exposure to outdoor smoke. That meant that some managers were sending farmworkers near active blazes.
(Related: Here’s how breathing in wildfire smoke affects the body.)
Businesses can request from the county agriculture commissioner what’s known as a Verification of Commercial Agricultural Activity, which can grant access into mandatory evacuation zones. (Ultimately, though, admission past an evacuation zone line is at the discretion of local police, not the agricultural commissioner.)
On October 6, Napa County had received 536 requests for these verifications, says commissioner Humberto Izquierdo, though he would not say how many of those had been approved. Sonoma County records show that of the 115 agricultural access verifications issued for the Glass Fire, 25 of them were requesting access for crews of 10 or more people.
“It was really revealing and concerning to hear that folks were working outside in evacuation zones where the air quality was significantly over 150 [AQI], and people were not getting N95 respirators,” Machabanski says. (As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, 150 AQI is the threshold at which members of the general public may experience health effects.)
To him, that was evidence that “the local industry and local government is really prioritizing the health of their grapes, and salvaging their harvest, over the health of immigrant workers.”
Castello di Amarosa, a winery in Calistoga, lost $5 million dollars worth of wine in the Glass Fire according to owner and fourth-generation vintner, Dario Sattui. Its castle-, $30 million facility survived and will reopen October 9, 2020.
For the workers, the situation presents an impossible choice: pick grapes in potentially unsafe conditions, or go without pay? Harvest can be lucrative: At the season’s peak, some of Napa’s highest-end vineyard management companies pay pickers as much as $45 an hour.
But many agricultural workers in wine country are working only five to six months a year, says Machabanski.
“Despite wages being consistent over a few months, if you take the average income over the course of a year for low-wage immigrant workers, most of them are living in poverty.”
(Related: Farmworkers risk coronavirus infection to keep the U.S. fed.)
If fire is indeed now a permanent fixture of harvest season, solutions—such as mandatory hazard pay—are needed to protect this vulnerable population both physically and financially. But finding those solutions has not yet proven to be a priority of either local governments or the industry.
Fires continue to rage
Perhaps the most sobering lesson of the 2020 fires is that California can no longer expect blazes to fall within a predictable time frame.
Fire season has historically come for wine country later in the fall: October, stretching into November. That’s meaningful because by that time of year, most wine grapes have been picked.
When catastrophic fires spread across Napa and Sonoma counties in October 2017, for example, an estimated 90 to 95 percent of the region’s grapes were off the vine, safely fermenting inside wineries—and therefore no longer vulnerable to the pernicious effects of smoke.
(Related: What is the science connecting wildfires to climate change?)
That phenomenon, called smoke taint, occurs when wildfire smoke lingers in the air for an extensive period of time, imparting certain compounds into the skins of wine grapes. Nearly impossible to eradicate, these compounds result in unpleasantly smoky flavors and aromas in the finished wine; the sensation is often described as tasting an ashtray.
Special agricultural permits allowed workers at Calistoga’s Bennett Lane Winery to press grapes while fires still raged nearby on October 3, 2020. Only 40 percent of the winery’s fruit was harvested before smoke tainted the rest.
This year, the lightning fires came in mid-August, when virtually none of California’s wine grapes had been harvested. What’s more, the staggering geographic spread of the lightning fires left few wine-producing areas of California untouched. Wine regions as disparate as Monterey and Mendocino, Sonoma and Santa Cruz, feared that their crops could be ruined.
Wineries rushed to send samples of their grapes and wine to laboratories that test for markers of smoke taint, but the high volume of submissions backlogged results from the leading Northern California analyst, ETS Laboratories, by more than a month. The delay almost guaranteed that the outcome would be useless. By the time winemakers found out whether grapes had been compromised, they’d be on their way to becoming raisins.
If some Napa vintners had been holding out hope that their fruit might have emerged from the August fire events smoke-free, September’s fire seemed to dash it all. “The crop’s not OK,” says Hal Barnett, owner of Barnett Family Vineyards, whose property on Napa’s Spring Mountain sustained damage to some buildings.
“There’s so much smoke that there’s no way we can make any wine this year. It’s not even worth testing,” he continues. “I don’t think there’s gonna be any Cabernet coming off Spring Mountain in the 2020 vintage.”
The Glass Fire is still smoldering, and the extent of smoke damage to Napa fruit—though undoubtedly large—remains unknown. For a county whose grape crop was valued at $1 billion in 2019, there’s a lot to lose.
But so far, vintners have had little recourse to prevent those losses. “I had become realistic about it,” said Barnett. “ it was going to be a matter of when, not if.”
Esther Mobley is the wine critic at the SanFrancisco Chronicle. Follow her on and Instagram.
California-based photographer Stuart Palley—a qualified wildland firefighter who has photographed more than a hundred fires across the state—is documenting the devastating effects of the 2020 fires. Follow him on and Instagram.
This story is an editorial collaboration between National Geographic and the San Francisco Chronicle.”,”author”:null,”date_published”:”2020-10-09T00:00:00.000Z”,”lead_image_url”:”https://i.natgeofe.com/n/f1165b63-2598-4493-9251-73d61fe6e387/mm9468_200905_12813.jpg?w=1200″,”dek”:null,”next_page_url”:null,”url”:”https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/wildfires-ravage-napa-valley-will-the-wine-region-survive”,”domain”:”www.nationalgeographic.com”,”excerpt”:”Wine regions in Northern California and beyond are reevaluating their future in a warmer, drier world.”,”word_count”:1823,”direction”:”ltr”,”total_pages”:1,”rendered_pages”:1}
Napa Vintners Assess Damage as Glass Fire Continues to Threaten Wineries
Updated: Sept. 30, 11:45 pm PDT
When the fires came in the middle of the night to Spring Mountain, 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley floor, Steve Sherwin and his son Matt were not going to give up without a fight. They began helping fire crews, trying to keep the flames away from Sherwin Family Vineyards.
“Steve and Matt had been courageously up there all night battling spot fires, trying to save homes and further loss on the mountain,” Wesley Steffens, estate director and associate winemaker at the nearby Vineyard 7 & 8, told Wine Spectator.
“Their winery burned, as did the winery at Behrens, though other structures on both properties still stand. Fred and Andy Schweiger [of neighboring Schweiger Family Vineyards & Winery] were on the hill battling for over 30 hours,” Steffens said.
“Efforts theirs, and the Sherwins', and a handful of others' show the incredible community we have.”
Across northern Napa Valley, vintners are finding hope and sorrow and tales of bravery today. The winds subsided for a while, allowing firefighters to try and establish containment of the sprawling Glass fire, working to keep it from destroying more homes and businesses.
Their fight is far from over. Evacuation orders were issued Tuesday evening for the towns of Calistoga and Angwin, both of which lie in the fire's path. Today, orders were issued for parts of St. Helena as well.
And winds are supposed to pick up again Thursday afternoon. More than 80,000 people have evacuated Napa and Sonoma counties so far. By late today, the fire had consumed more than 51,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, according to Cal Fire, the state fire agency.
At least 200 buildings have been destroyed.
Angwin and Calistoga made it through Tuesday night. And some vintners have been able to return to their wineries and see for the first time whether their livelihoods are still standing. Some found good news. Others did not. And many others have been unable to get back.
Read more of Wine Spectator's ongoing coverage of the Glass fire, including reporting on damage to Meadowood Resort, Newton Vineyard, Burgess Cellars, Behrens, Château Boswell and more.
There is still limited access for vintners on Spring Mountain, on the valley's west side. “Unfortunately, downed power lines and trees are blocking paths up to property to confirm damage, so I don't have a verified answer yet,” said Marston winemaker Marbue Marke. “It is not looking good, unfortunately.”
Immortal owner Tim Martin is also wishing for the best as he waits for access to his property on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain. “I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Immortal is really immortal, because, by the fire map, it went right over us for sure.”
Firefighters from the Sacramento Fire Department burn brush near St. Helena in hopes of creating a fire break. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Winemaker Chris Howell was finally able to return to his Cain winery, only to find devastation. All structures on the property, including the winery and homes, are gone, along with the 2019 and 2020 vintages. The vineyard survived.
“On Sunday evening we were alerted by friends and neighbors of a new fire, on our side of the valley, at the foot of Spring Mountain,” said Howell, describing what he and his wife, Katie Lazar, saw. “By 8 p.m. we could see flames at the top of the Newton Vineyard, just one ridge and about a mile away from Cain. We certainly didn't want to go, but we knew that it was time to leave.
“Over the next two hours high winds drove the fire down into the canyon between Newton and Cain, developing intense heat and moving with alarming rapidity.
Within two hours flames had consumed the beautiful redwood barn, built in 1871, and were climbing the hill below the Cain winery. For Katie and me, these were our last visions that night.
” They and the other families on the property evacuated.
Spring Mountain Vineyard's winery building and its Miravalle mansion were spared thanks in part to the efforts of vineyard manager Ron Rosenbrand. According to Dermot Whelan, the winery's head of marketing, Rosenbrand spent Sunday night assisting fire crews in defending these buildings.
“Chateau Chevalier winery [dating to 1891] also survived due to its stone structure and slate roof,” said Whelan.
“La Perla winery [from 1873], the Draper house located at the summit of the property and Ron's own home on the estate all perished, as did many other century-old buildings spread throughout the estate.”
The Sherwins posted a statement yesterday on their website: “Dear Friends, we are heartbroken to share the news that our winery burned to the ground yesterday.
But, rest assured, we will rebuild and be there for you. We still have wine and we are still in business, so all is not lost. Thank you all for your loyalty and incredible support.
It means the world to us, especially at a time this.”
Many wineries reported partial damage or close calls. The team at Schramsberg posted a statement on social media on Tuesday afternoon, reporting that their winery had survived.
Thank you everyone for your support. While good news has been hard to come by for everyone in our valley, we are relieved to report that our buildings are currently untouched by the fires. Several acres have burned and firefighters are still monitoring the situation. #glassfire pic..com/O0pylrK9xQ
— Schramsberg (@Schramsberg) September 29, 2020
Others are still waiting to find out. “Being evacuated makes it hard to produce first-hand information, but we do have two crew chiefs in touch with us who are active on the mountain,” said Michael Klopka of SummitVine. “I have only heard that our personal residence is still standing, but the condition of our vineyards is unknown.”
From Beckstoffer vineyards, the smoke in the hills was all too clear. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Klopka says they were planning to harvest this week, and the fruit is now a loss.
Meanwhile, the owners of Castello di Amorosa spent a depressing day of gauging what could be saved and what had been lost forever at their winery. Blackened bottles of wine lay strewn about everywhere inside a charred building.
“The fire came up from the north side of the valley and hit our farmhouse on the backside,” said Jim Sullivan, Amorosa's vice president of PR and marketing.
Sullivan said the farmhouse includes several offices, a fermentation room, a bottling line and holds some wine inventory. Still, the medieval-style castle and all other buildings on the property were unharmed.
“Thankfully, most of our inventory is in offsite warehouses and the castle, but some of the 2020 vintage was in the fermentation room and ly gone,” he added.
For now, he said they're scrambling to get back on their feet and get their systems back online so they can fulfill orders and resume business. “We're not the woods by any stretch. There's still an active fire near Bothe-Napa Valley State Park,” less than a mile away, he said.
On the other side of Calistoga, it was a similar story. Third-generation grower and winemaker Vince Tofanelli said he has lost his grandparents' 100-year-old homestead ranch in Calistoga. He has yet to assess the status of his vineyards, which are among the oldest vines planted in Napa and produce grapes sold to prominent wineries including Turley, Chateau Montelena and Duckhorn.
Blackened fermentation tanks sit in the Fairwinds Estate Winery. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Carol Reber at Duckhorn reported that their Three Palms Vineyard is in reasonable shape. “It's a huge relief because it was right in the middle of that highly impacted area,” she said. The team at Sterling Vineyards reported some damage, but said they would not know the full extent until they could fully inspect it.
Hourglass winemaker Tony Biagi reports that they lost some buildings, but not their winery. “Unfortunately, we lost two structures on the property that were dear to our hearts,” he said. “However, we are blessed to state that the winery made it through relatively unscathed from our vantage point.”
Farther south, the team at Meadowood Resort were still assessing damage, but can confirm the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning main restaurant, the Grill restaurant and the golf shop all burned.
Some guest lodges burned, while others did not, but they do not have a final count as of yet. Some good news: The reception area, croquet lodge, new pool areas, pool restaurant area and spa were spared.
Michael McMillan, general manager at Seven Stones, which lies just above Meadowood, says they just dodged a bullet. “We lost the guest tower that is located as soon as you enter the property, but no other structures were effected. It appears the cooling system for the barrel room stayed on the whole time, so no loss of product in the winery.”
The fire could be seen from Merus Wines' vineyard above St. Helena (SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images)
“It was pretty devastating, but should have been worse,” said Justin Stephens of Hunnicutt. “I can't believe it wasn't a total loss given what I was watching Sunday night. We fared much better than some folks, but still lost a hospitality building, crush pad, some tanks and a pump house. And there is no foliage remaining on 90 percent of the property. Pretty eerie.”
Phillip Corallo-Titus of Titus Vineyards stayed and defended his winery and 50-acre vineyard with this brother Eric, tamping down embers as they landed. “The fire got pretty close to Titus,” he said.
“It really started getting close Sunday night. We had been watching it all day—it seemed pretty stable and seemed pretty far away and then between 4:30 and 7 it really picked up steam.
A lot of homes were burning.”
As embers rained down, he and Eric starting soaking their landscaping and the roof to their winery and an old barn.
“The winery is made of cement and a little bit of wood so that was fairly defensible, but the landscaping kept catching fire around it and we kept putting it out.
The winery is 100 percent intact, our vineyards are fine, but [the fire] was literally just right across Silverado Trail from us.”
Winds in the forecast
What happens in coming days all depends on the weather. Record high temperatures are forecast to continue for several days, and dry, gusting winds are forecast to return tomorrow.
One of the biggest challenges remains that harvest is stymied and smoke continues to fill the region. Father east, on Howell Mountain, Elton Slone, president and CEO at Robert Craig Winery, reports the fire is not far away. “I think we will make it if we survive today and tomorrow.
After everything else this year, it looked we were going to be able to make some nice Howell Mountain wine in 2020 with low yields and great structure from the vintage,” he said.
“The problem now is that we are having trouble getting in to get the diesel in the generator to keep the tanks and barrel room cool.”
Cal Fire's priorities are to protect the city of Santa Rosa and to keep the fire Pope Valley and the populated areas around it, according to Cal Fire Incident Management Team 3 commander Billy See.
Unfortunately, there is still plenty of land to burn. “The footprint of this fire has occurred in between the 2017 Tubbs, Nuns and Adobe fires,” he said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
“This land has no fire history that's recorded.”
It has already been a challenging fire season in Northern California. See said most of the firefighters have been working since the middle of July with little to no rest. “We are doing the best we can with the resources we have on the incident,” he said.
Despite the fires and the smoke that have made this vintage more challenging than any in recent memory, vintners are still pledging to fight on.
“Napa is a strong, tight-knit community, and there is a great love for the valley from people throughout the world,” said Amorosa's Sullivan.
“I have a feeling something really special is going to come this and there is going to be an amazing comeback.”
—With reporting by Tim Fish and Kim Marcus