The wine industry continues recovering from the wildfires that scorched Napa Valley and Sonoma earlier in the year.
While Southern California has finally contained the largest wildfire in its history, the state is just starting its recovery process on an earlier fire.
With 220,000 acres and 2,800 homes burned in Napa Valley and 5,000 homes destroyed in Sonoma by the Napa fire, Northern California has endured major loss.
The wine industry has also been facing the aftermath of the wildfires, which is of great importance to locals: the Napa Valley wine industry generates over $50 billion annually, employing almost half of the Napa County workforce.
In the face of such loss, the question remains: how will the Napa fire impact the wine industry into the future?
Smoke contamination, also referred to as smoke taint, has the potential to destroy an entire region’s harvest.
“Smoke taint is like a sunburn. If you’re at the beach, the only way to avoid it is to not be exposed,” said Jean Hoefliger, a Napa Winemaker.
Anita Oberholster, Extension Specialist in Enology at UC Davis, stated to The Atlantic, “smoke taint is also like a sunburn in that the risk of it increases with exposure time and as the concentration of the smoke increases.”
While the hot, dry summer caused 85 percent of grapes to be picked prior to the Napa fires, the threat of smoke contamination remains a big concern for vineyards across Napa Valley and Sonoma. This is especially true for those vineyards with recently picked grapes as nobody will know for certain which ones were hit the worst until they are turned into wine.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Jim Lapsley, Adjunct Associate Professor of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis notes “Smoke taint varies greatly by location, even within the same region.”
The possible smoke contamination from a fire that broke out near several of Hoefliger’s vineyards in October posed such a strong threat to its unpicked grapes—valued at almost $14 million—that he had his crew pick 230 tons of it in just three days time shortly after the fires, according to The Atlantic.
Losing a vineyard to a fire is uncommon due to the defensible space created around estates. No dry brush is kept around, and the vines have plenty of moisture. It’s deemed so safe in a vineyard that fire officials and their crews are known to use vineyards as rally points. However, while not many wineries kept their harvest in Napa County, the few that did suffered major loss.
Backbone Vineyard, for example, lost its vineyard and the last five years of vintages. In those cases, the loss can significantly set back progress, considering it takes between three to five years for newly planted vines to bear fruit.
While this may be the case in only some areas, tourism has slowed due to misconceptions over the damage sustained during the Napa fire.
“The more or less 5,000 homes destroyed in Sonoma County have little proximity to or bearing on vineyards and wineries,” said David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars.
The wine industry employs 40 percent of the Napa County workforce, and between 4,000 and 6,000 farmworkers in Sonoma County. Unfortunately, this portion of the wine industry is one that is the most vulnerable in the wake of the Napa fires.
This could also delay the recovery considering the majority of the workforce are immigrant workers. Due to the Napa fire destroying the region’s already low supply of affordable housing, this population could be forced to leave.
It seems apparent that the effects of the Napa fire on the wine industry have yet to fully unfold, and recovery efforts will be key in the months that follow. Despite the total loss of vineyards remaining low, the wine industry remains deeply connected to the surrounding area, and consequently, to the area’s journey to recovery.
How are the Berries?
While samples are being tested of grapes suspected to have endured smoke contamination, it is clear that only time will tell how much of the harvest was affected.
When it comes to the area itself, shortly after the fires ceased “the air cleared the following week, and Napa Valley was far from the image of destruction portrayed by the media,” said Remi Cohen, Vice President and General Manager of Lede Family Wines. “The wildfire damage has not impacted the beauty and enjoyment of Healdsburg and the surrounding Sonoma County wine regions.”