Perspectives on the California Wine Country Fires

Geoff Kruth

If we climb high enough, we will reach a height from which tragedy ceases to look tragic.
– Irvin Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept

The smoke woke me up at 4am—the only hour with NO good reason to be lucid—not from urgent proximity, but by the nature of how air seeps through the Petaluma Gap. I’ve explained this geography in every class I’ve taught on Sonoma, but never from the vantage point of a wildfire. I was planning to leave that morning for a 10-day trip to Asia; things seemed bad, and I didn’t know if I should go. I made a quick rationalization based on the fact that my trip was organized around a series of classes on the history of California wine, a justification that I would increasingly rely on to assuage my guilt over not being home.

Kelli White and I traveled to four cities in Asia. We structured our class chronologically, beginning with Buena Vista and ending with Massican, figuring that starting with Petite Sirah and finishing with Friulano would encourage a mindset of reassessment. Sleep deprived and anxiety ridden, it felt good to talk about California wine, respond to misconceptions, and change minds.

As the fires continued, our team kept returning to the question of how we could help. Beyond providing personal support for our friends and family, my instinct was to take our time and, as an educational organization, offer perspective on what we felt was missing after the sense of immediacy inevitably faded—a point we’ve certainly reached.

I have a suggestion: come visit us soon and encourage your customers to do the same. It’s beautiful here, and we need your tourist dollars to rebuild. But also, whatever dogma you hold on California wine, do your best to free your appraisement from it. The last few years’ attention from journalists and sommeliers on “new” directions in California wine has helped overthrow some monolithic stereotypes, but at the same time, it has encouraged others. Let’s take this opportunity to reconsider whither are we bound in the Bear Republic.

Our wine history comes in waves. Spanish settlements brought Mission grapes. Yellow gold brought a population, and purple gold established a lasting industry. We were ravaged by phylloxera, then shot ourselves in the national foot. We reestablished both feet and surprised international skeptics; we made some money and spent even more. We gave wine points and sold it as a lifestyle; we made wine crafty and marketed it like politics. But all the while, there has been good wine to drink—really good wine, in fact.

Easy-drinking wine doesn’t last long in my house. When I got back from Asia, I ran out to get some bottles. I picked up a mixed case from a friend who was donating the proceeds to a fire relief charity: the red was Barbera blended with everything from Grignolino to Freisa, the rosé was based on Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, and the white, a Muscat/Cortese blend, was my favorite of the three. I stopped at Costco to grab more wine. My sommelier friends might be surprised to know how much sub-$12 California Sauvignon Blanc I drink. I texted Kelli a photo of my cart, and she told me it looked like it a Pinterest post from a mommy blog. All of the bottles tasted great, especially the Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc. I really wish I produced a white wine for $11 that tasted like that. Some of you will sneer, but you shouldn’t. While I’m not entirely sure what a mommy blog is, maybe I should start one.

Seeing the damage around town hit hard. I first moved to Sonoma County for college in 1993, and many of my daily mental signposts—things I just assume—are no longer there. I felt an internal stigma from being absent during the fires, but my positive reflections of the classes we gave the previous week felt genuine. The wines were good. Not just the Pax Syrah (Pax Mahle, with a handful of others, has redefined the grape in California) and Bedrock (dedicated to the preservation of heritage varieties) and Domaine de la Côte (with its Burgundian flair) but also the Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet (owned by Gallo), Grgich Chardonnay (mommy blogger approved), and Hanzell (probably made in about the same way as when the Hanley Fire burned 50,000 acres in 1964).

I lived on social media during the week of the fires—even more than usual. Traditional news outlets were lacking beyond already low expectations. Scrolling along, I was admittedly quick to cast stones and characteristically snarky when posts seemed self-serving or tone deaf. (Yes, I know those are the only seven wines you think are cool in California. No, free-flowing Clos Rougeard parties are not going to bring my friend’s house back.) But, everything I saw was well intentioned, and that’s more than I can say for much of modern life.

So, what to do now? By this point, #DrinkCalifornia is no longer trending, and the short-lived enthusiasm for fundraisers has faded. But what we can do for the long term is re-examine the quality of California wine with an open mind. Like anywhere in the world, there is no lack of mediocre products, rip-offs, surprising values, or singular treasures. From my experience, the dividing line between these is not the size of production or applicability to a zeitgeist, but in the wine itself, in a glass, put in front of the right guest by a thoughtful wine professional.

On my first day back shopping for wine, I also took this photo. A large part of this neighborhood is gone, and the charred bear is worse for wear. But don’t worry—he’ll be back.

Photo credit: Geoff Kruth

Kelli White

I live in Napa Valley but, like Geoff, experienced the wine country fires from a distance. By the time I returned from my travels, the flames were over 90% contained and the first autumn rains were starting to fall. After weeks of social media hysteria, I was expecting total carnage, and I was surprised that so much appeared untouched. With the exception of a swath of Carneros and northern Santa Rosa, much of the damage was contained to the hillsides and, therefore, out of direct sight. Those hidden areas, however, were terrible to behold, including my own neighborhood, which sits in the foothills of Atlas Peak. As the weeks passed by and I slowly caught up with my colleagues and friends, I was struck by their optimism, their resilience, and their bravery. The fires caused a lot of pain and devastation, but mixed in is a remarkable amount of beauty. We will be telling the stories of these fires for generations. The following are a few that I found especially moving.

Napa County

Mike Hirby was driving back from San Francisco when his phone started pinging. It was late. And dark. And the winds were unusually frantic. “Are you guys okay?” “What’s happening at the winery?” After a few more troubling messages, he rerouted his car away from home and toward Soda Canyon, the newly completed site of Relic Wine Cellars, and the locus of a rapidly expanding inferno.

When Mike reached the bottom of Soda Canyon Road, a police blockade was in effect. The fires were not visible, but smoke was already choking the air. He and a few other locals lingered at Soda Canyon Store until the smoke became intolerable. Mike drove the few miles north to the Stags Leap District, where he saw flames racing down the hillside like a river, straight through a good friend’s property. He called the owners, thankfully out of town and harm’s way, and broke the news. Numb and helpless, he headed home to his sleeping wife. Schatzi Throckmorton slumbered peacefully. She had drifted off well before any whiff of danger had infected the breeze.

Just after dawn the next morning, Mike and Schatzi attempted to talk their way through the blockade. Fires raged on multiple hilltops now, but the first responders were consumed with the monumental task of saving lives, not structures. As Mike argued, pleaded, and bargained with the police officer, he could see Signorello in flames just over her shoulder. No attempt was being made to put it out. He imagined his winery in a similar state.

The next few hours were a surreal blur of panic, despair, and misinformation, until finally—joy. A local vineyard manager with a special dispensation from the county to access the evacuated zones and rescue livestock had shot a video of their property. The fires had burned up to and around their crush pad, but somehow the winery remained unscathed. Mike felt less relief than motivation at this news. Now he thought only of his active fermentations and resolved to save the vintage.

Relic Winery (Photo credit: Mike Hirby)

On Tuesday, Mike and his assistant winemaker, David, were determined to make it to Relic. After several unsuccessful attempts to find an open path across the Napa River, they abandoned their truck and hiked on foot, up through the smoldering woods and past still-burning buildings. Inside the winery, with neither electricity nor running water, they did what they could—check temperatures and brix and punch down caps, pre-industrial winemaking at its finest. They drained the free-run juice of a finished fermentation, but without electricity to run the press, they had to gas the skins for a future squeeze. They then got in the winery truck—also undamaged—and went further up the hill, in search of some other way in along the ridge.

With an albeit unpaved and extremely treacherous back route secured, they set about finding a generator. Within 24 hours of the first flare-up, all the generators in Napa and Sonoma Counties had been rented, so Mike arranged to borrow one from Behrens Family Winery, whose power had been restored early on. Getting the generator to Relic, however, was complicated. As Calistoga had been evacuated by this point, Mike had to cut across the valley, through vineyards and private properties. More than once, he and his interns had to fill ditches with rocks to get the tow-behind generator across. And more than once, Mike wondered at these interns. Unlike him, they didn’t have years of their lives and savings tied up in the winery, and yet they refused to leave his side. Their quiet dedication warmed him, providing more fuel for the grind.

With power restored, the Relic team was back in business and even lent a hand to some neighbors, pressing lots for less-fortunate wineries such as White Rock, which sustained significant damage in the fires. Little by little, life returned to normal—roads opened, cellular signal was reinstated, evacuation orders were lifted, skies cleared. And Mike's daily commute across the valley from St. Helena went back to its default idyll. Until he turns up Soda Canyon Road. Once there, the charred remains of his neighbors' homes flank his climb, guilt mixes with gratitude, and the ticklish residue of October’s terrors settles once more upon him.

Mendocino County

“The damage to our winery has been exaggerated,” Katrina Frey tells me over the phone, “and yet the damage to Mendocino County has been largely underreported.” A quick scan of the major fire-related news coverage proves her point. Despite what the national focus on Napa and Sonoma would lead you to believe, the Redwood Valley Fire in Mendocino was just as devastating, claiming nine lives and destroying an estimated 25% of the area’s housing. In addition, as Mendocino fruit typically ripens later than in Napa or Sonoma, a larger percentage of the crop was still hanging when the fires struck, rendering it vulnerable to smoke taint.

On Sunday, October 8, Katrina and Jonathan Frey woke from a sound sleep to a glowing red sky. A glance outside their window revealed a massive fire on the mountain ridge that separates Redwood Valley from the neighboring Potter Valley. With the winds in their favor, they felt momentarily safe, unaware that the fire was creeping around the base of the mountain and heading straight toward them.

Theirs is a large family winery staffed by their large family, bolstered by a loyal crew that swells during harvest season. The first night of the fires, 64 people were sleeping on the Frey property. Once they made the collective decision to evacuate, they were ready in 20 minutes. Despite this efficiency, the southern road from the winery that leads to Highway 101 was already in flames when they arrived. They had no choice but to turn around and take the only other route available—a mountainous dirt road striped by seven different stream bed crossings. They were joined on this journey by many of their friends and neighbors; all together, a convoy of over 75 cars wound its worried way northward to safety.

Back at the Frey ranch, the two-story redwood office building that so epitomized old California charm had burned to the ground, as did the tasting room, bottling line, and eight out of ten family homes. What didn’t burn, crucially, was the actual winery and the warehouse that contained their finished goods. Further, the Freys had already broken ground on a new winery and tasting room, set to be finished in time for the 2018 harvest. Located not two miles away, it was completely untouched by the fickle flames. These critical exceptions are the very things that will allow the Freys to stay in business.

Frey Vineyards is an organic winery that produces over 200,000 cases of wine each year. They grow roughly a third of their needs but rely on other organic vineyards for most of their fruit. Susan Poor, who sells a good amount of her production to the Freys, still had Carignan hanging when the fires broke out. Naturally, she was worried about the people and properties in the Redwood Valley, but as a grower, she was also concerned about her crop, which was losing weight with every extra day on the vine. She was delighted, as were the Freys, when other National Organic Program-certified wineries, such as Barra, Parducci, and Fetzer, stepped up to receive and process all of Frey’s still-hanging fruit. “As a farmer, I was extremely grateful. But I was also proud to see all these wineries working together who are normally in competition with one another.”

With the vintage saved and hope for 2018, Katrina Frey is addressing her operation’s human needs. “We have 18 full- and part-time vineyard employees who are homeless right now. That’s 13 households with 11 minor children between them,” Katrina explains, adding that it was already extremely difficult to find reasonable rentals before the fires. She worries constantly about the well-being and future of her employees, family, and neighbors. “The grief is really deep in all of us, especially regarding the loss of life and the trauma felt by those who thought they were going to die. We aren’t over it by any stretch,” she says, “but the future of Frey vineyards is very bright.”

Sonoma County

Over on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain, Whitney Fisher went to extreme lengths to ensure the safety of her family’s winery. In the first few days, the fire maps were disheartening to watch, as the Tubbs, Nuns, and Patrick Fires seemed to close around their winery like a noose. And as the flames expanded, so did the road blocks, and Whitney quickly found herself cut off from the family ranch. Like Mike Hirby of Relic, she had no choice but to hike in, inoculate her rapidly warming cold soaks, and punch down her active fermentations.

David Arthur Vineyards (Photo credit: Nile Zacherle)

Also like Mike, she soon realized that electricity was essential to preserving the vintage, and scavenged for a generator. Vehicles were forbidden from crossing the roadblocks, but Whitney came armed with cookies. She convinced the police guards that the generator was not technically a vehicle. Therefore, she could back it up to the line, unhook it from the trailer, swivel it around, and attach it to the back of her cousin’s truck, which had remained inside the evacuation zone. As a thank you, she returned with gallons of gasoline from the tank at her winery. Just like those they were charged to protect, the police had difficulty obtaining such essentials as gas, water, and food.

Whitney and her crew fell into a rhythm: show up, punch down, pump over—all the while popping out every 30 minutes to make sure the fires weren’t racing their way. Ash rained down around them, and helicopters dropped buckets of eerily candy-colored retardant on nearby properties, but the rhythm of their winery chores helped to ameliorate their anxiety. Whitney ended each day by spraying down the buildings with water. This may have been the firefighting equivalent of crossing one’s fingers, but the Fishers were grateful for the small comfort it provided.

Moving Forward

There are countless tales like these. To access David Arthur Vineyards on Pritchard Hill, Whitney’s husband Nile Zacherle, also a winemaker, snuck past police barricades by cutting through the back gate of a friend’s winery to tend his fermentations, an act that had him regularly questioning his own sanity. Larkmead, a grower and winery, fermented and tended the lots destined for their at-risk clients. Darioush winemaker Steve Devitt was in the middle of a night harvest when the fires descended. He and his crews were quickly forced to switch from picking grapes to stomping out landscape flare-ups. Meanwhile, his neighborhood on Mt. Veeder had been evacuated. He, his wife, and their two dogs relocated to Napa’s Meritage Resort for a minimal fee (nightly rates regularly exceed $400). Owners Tim and Stephanie Busch transformed their resort into a refugee center for weeks, taking in both people and animals and providing three meals a day—with wine!—at no extra cost. Likewise, a handful of local restaurants that were forced to temporarily close kept their employees busy by cooking meals for first responders.

The view from David Arthur Vineyards, looking across Napa Valley, during the fires as compared to before (Photo credit: Nile Zacherle)

The fires are over, but they’re not. Loved ones were lost, businesses were destroyed or crippled, thousands were displaced, and solutions still seem distant at best. But winter rains are starting to hide the scarred landscape under patches of green, tourists are slowly returning, and word is spreading that the wines are (mostly) fine. Wine country as a concept is recovering. And yet, as a writer who lives here and is aware of the human cost of these fires, I worry that dramatizing the experiences of people who ultimately emerged unscathed will appear superfluous, insensitive. But the truth is, the pain caused by these fires, whether direct or indirect, can be overwhelming, and we all deal with that in different ways. Myself, I can only take bites. And clinging to triumphant moments—people risking their lives to save animals, neighbors checking on neighbors, winemakers-turned-outlaws jumping fiery fences in the name of wetting caps, wineries setting aside thoughts of market share to lend their competitors a hand, a winemaker bribing police with cookies, police allowing themselves to be bribed—these small gestures of human charity, they are medicine to me. They are the wine with which I wash down my grief.

Chris Tanghe

It’s important to consider the conditions that led to the wine country fires, and to the fires that continue blazing now in Southern California. Last winter, North America’s West Coast saw record snow and rain from October through the spring. This deluge was just what California needed, filling reservoirs and the hearts of skiers after several parched seasons. Another record-breaking season followed: summer brought intense heat, drying out the new thick, verdant landscape to a bone-dry tinderbox. And so, as summer ended, hungry fires ravaged the entirety of the West Coast, with up to 20 different events happening from British Columbia to San Diego.

For California, the worst began in October, when 21 separate locations ignited in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Solano Counties. Dry, hot winds ranging from 35 to 70 miles per hour exacerbated conditions and caused furious spread of the blaze. Ultimately, the fires burned over 245,000 acres, destroyed 14,000 homes, caused an estimated $3.3 billion of damage, and took 43 lives. In Santa Rosa, 5% of the residential area was wiped off the map, leaving a scene resembling a movie warzone.

In wine country, three major fires impacted wineries and vineyards. The most destructive was the Tubbs Fire, which started outside of Calistoga in northern Napa. Consuming over 30,000 acres and killing 20 people, it is the most destructive fire in California history. Further south on Atlas Peak, a separate blaze burned over 50,000 acres, damaging several vineyards and wineries, including Signorello Estate. To the west in Sonoma, the Nuns Fire burned just north of the town of Sonoma, eventually merging with multiple small fires and damaging over 54,000 acres.

The resulting impacts on the California wine industry are many, from loss of finished wine, farm equipment, facilities, and vineyards to smoke taint and a tarnished image of the vintage. Yet most fruit had already been harvested and was tucked away safely, and the quality of the wines is high. The hot vintage brought typical challenges, and overall yields are down slightly over previous vintages. Certainly, some sites had fruit still unharvested, and there will be smoke taint. But the impact on unharvested grapes is minimal compared to other areas on the West Coast such as Oregon and Washington, which suffered from earlier fires. In the Columbia River Gorge, a September fire burned over 48,000 acres, affecting not only the wines grown there but also in the Willamette Valley, where the copious smoke traveled.

Smoke taint is tricky, with various degrees of impact depending on when the vine is exposed and for how long, and on wind activity. Smoke has various phenolic compounds that cause the undesirable flavors of ashtray, acrid smoke, medicine, and plastic in finished wines. These are caused by burning lignins of wood, which create the phenols guaiacol, 4-methylguaiacol, o-creosol, m-creosol, and p-creosol. Smoke enters grapes through their waxy cuticle, becoming concentrated in the skin. These volatile phenols also occur in small, tolerable amounts in certain grape varieties, such as Syrah, and due to oak treatment, especially with heavily toasted wood.

Smoke-affected fruit is ideally tested before being vinified, as there are a few ways to mitigate its resulting character. Since most the volatile phenols are in the skins, styles with little or no skin contact are preferable, so rosé and white wines are generally ideal. Utilizing just the free-run juice also lessens the impact. A study by the Australian Wine Research Institute showed that smoke-affected Sauvignon Blanc free-run juice had eight times less volatile smoke phenols than the press wine from the same fruit, and that most varieties are impacted similarly.

If a red wine is to be made under these conditions, little can be done to reduce the impact of smoke taint. The requisite skin contact necessary to extract color and desirable phenols will bring with it the impacts of smoke taint. The most effective strategy may be to filter with activated carbon, which can reduce volatile smoke compounds by up to 70%. Yet not all the smoky phenols are free; rather, some are bound with other elements, namely sugar, that are not easily removed with activated carbon. These bound phenols are later freed by various enzymes, either through aging in bottle or on the palate, and once liberated they become perceptible. As a result, it is nearly impossible to fully eradicate smoke taint phenols from a red wine.

But in the wake of the wine country fires, the key issue is not smoke taint but economic impact due to lost sales and a drop in tourism. Wineries that suffered damage must also rebuild and replant. An acre of new vines costs roughly $25,000 to put in the ground, a pittance compared to the minimum $1,000,000 for a new winery facility, not to mention recovering the costs of wines in barrel or bottle that were lost. Considering time and potential market loss as well, this is a formidable challenge for any business, regardless of insurance coverage.

Education and funding for fire prevention is key for avoiding such disasters in the future. Nine out of ten forest fires are caused by humans, usually unknowingly. Campfire protocol, spark arrestors on off-road vehicles, proper cigarette disposal, and responsible use of fireworks are simple but extremely effective ways of preventing fires. Controlled burns are a logical way to relieve overcrowding of trees and promote new growth while clearing out a buildup of dangerous flammable organic material, preventing an unintentional fire down the road. These measures and others will need to be employed to compensate for the larger issue at hand: global climate change that is quickly altering the norm of what we can expect to face as environmental challenges.

In 2009, Congress granted $4.46 billion to fund wildfire fighting and prevention initiatives in response to the increasing regularity of forest fires. The proposed 2018 budget from the current administration aims to cut that funding by $350 million, in addition to a 23% reduction of support for volunteer fire departments across the country, despite forest fires being at an all-time high for the West Coast.

We as a wine community need to take responsibility for supporting California wine country and educating our guests and customers. Consider mentioning these salient points as you sell California wine and speak about this vintage. Calling your Congress representatives couldn’t hurt either.