The Fires of October, 2017

As I sit here trying to write this blog about the devastation in the coastal wine country, I’m finding it hard to even start. It all still seems so unbelievable.

Although we here in the Sierra Foothills seem to have more “experience” with wildfires, the speed, heat and sheer destructive force with the fires in Napa and Sonoma is not something we’ve seen here. And with this series of fires since Monday, we have so far been spared any impact.

I suppose I really need to start by saying that we at Madroña are far removed (80 miles or more) from these October fires. The major fires are concentrated in the counties of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino, or what we think of as the coastal range of mountains. We are located across California in the Sierra Nevada range of mountains.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t look every morning at the weather conditions and fire maps trying to discern where the fires are burning. We have friends who have lost houses and others who have been evacuated. And with the wine industry being as closely connected as it is, we know many of the wineries damaged or destroyed.

The fires are the topic of our conversations, even as we continue to harvest, and also the topic from consumers in the tasting room.

In the tasting room, I’ve tried to answer questions from purely an agricultural point of view (not trying to include the loss of homes, schools and businesses, as I personally can’t even absorb this myself). The challenges farmers and wineries face are huge. To be honest, harvest is probably the worst time for such fires to occur.

Please put yourself into the shoes of the farmer. We work all year long, investing our time and money into a crop, counting on the pay-out at harvest. What that means is that there can literally be one day of picking grapes that pays for the entire year and our subsistence. Luckily we’ve heard that the majority (up to 3/4) of the crop had already been picked. But for the other farmers in the burned areas, it could mean losing the crop.

Now losing the crop this year doesn’t necessarily mean losing the vineyard. Had you asked me last week how easily vineyards burn, I would have laughed since it’s hard to get even dead vines to burn. In fact, vineyards are often considered firebreaks, low density of vegetation with hydrated (green) plants.

However, these fires in Napa and Sonoma were so hot that even some vineyards sustained damage. Which then brings about the question of insurance. A farmer might consider getting crop insurance with rainy/cold weather in mind, and I imagine this covers all damage to grapes. Personally, even though we run the risk of frost in spring damaging our crop, we have never gotten crop insurance.  But would a farmer have fire insurance for the vineyard (with replanting costs being $10K-$15K+ per acre)? That would be akin to getting flood insurance up here in the foothills. That’s now something that we are looking at!

This is new situation, and we will see how resilient the vines are.

From the winery side, harvest is also the worst time to have these fires. For one thing, the grapes still out on the vine can absorb some of the smoke into the leaves and berries. Called “smoky taint”, this was an issue with the Mendocino fires of 2008. Since then, many other regions have experienced the impact including a small amount here in 2013 with the smoke from Rim Fire near Yosemite. (Ironically, the King Fire in 2015 was a mere 3 miles away, but was no impact for us due to favorable wind conditions.) Essentially, smoky taint can give wines a character that ranges from a hint of smokiness to old campfire to dirty ashtray. There are ways to lessen the impact with winemaking, and it can even be filtered out, but the challenge exists in areas layered by smoke.

The other main issue that some wineries are facing is electricity. There are still sections of the region that are without electricity, and it’s almost impossible to do winery work without it. And remember that during crush, the wines are fermenting. Our job as winemakers is to take care of them by regulating temperatures, pumping the wines over (to keep the skins wet), and pressing when the wine has the perfect balance (to get the wine away from the skins and control the tannins). Without electricity, this is all a challenge, and that’s assuming you’re not picking.

Lastly, working (such as picking and crushing) in smoky conditions is difficult. Work days should be shorter if at all. This has the personal impact as well as the crews picking are counting on this payday of work just as much as the farmer growing the fruit.

Having said all this, there are a couple of points that need mentioning. Although the fires are some of the worst California has seen, not all vineyards and wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino are impacted. Most continue to harvest and work with only a few wineries having been damaged. And the regions are rallying together finding generators for electricity, sharing harvesting equipment and helping each other out with processing at different wineries. These difficult conditions bring out the best in people, and be sure that the wines of 2017 will reward their efforts.

These are just a few of my thoughts, being a winery far removed from the fires but close in concern for those in the thick of it.

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4 Responses to The Fires of October, 2017

  1. Lloyd Anderson says:

    Nice, compasonate explanation Paul, thank you.

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  2. Bruce Lundquist says:

    Good Morning Paul,

    Thanks for your kind thoughts. We are still operating at Rack & Riddle, though one of our facilities is in an active fire zone. We have been keeping both facilities operating despite the challenge. However, to your blog, the damage here is mind numbing. But the support and kind thoughts we have from colleagues and friends like you are the lift we need to see this through.

    All the very best, Bruce

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  3. Patty Durkee says:

    Timely information that educates those of us who were concerned about the wineries and their ability to recover from this. It’s heartening to know that so much of the crops had already been harvested and the resilience of the vines themselves. I will definitely support the wineries as best I can by buying California, especially Napa & Sonoma… and of course, Madrona!

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  4. Duane Leet says:

    I am working on the disaster declarations in the east and islands. Loans for wineries, which include loans to compensate for loss of sales for the current year and, through some formulae I can’t remember, other years, are provided by The Small Business Administration or, depending on the peculiarities of the writing of the statutes, by the Agriculture department. The interest rates aren’t bad- 1% above prime and there are a couple of categories… so don’t quote me: For SBA, go here https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/disaster-assistance. The one requirement for loan availability is that at least the state declare the area an official disaster area, or that the president declare a Presidential Disaster. The later requires the state’s cooperation and initiative. Bottom line, lack of crop insurance isn’t the end of the line for financial help. The various impacted wine industry associations and impacted communities must move the state to action.

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