As the sixth day of wildfires nears an end, 155,000 acres have been reported scorched across Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Napa. Initial surveys of core wine country acreage show the majority contained dry brush, trees and grass - not vines. Thankfully vineyards are natural firebreaks and have been spared extensive damage. The last report by Napa Valley Vintners said 5 vineyards suffered a total loss or significant damage and another 11 had notable damage to structures and/or vineyards. For some perspective, there are approximately 800 physical wineries in Napa and Sonoma combined, so having roughly 2% reporting a loss is a promising sign considering the scale of the devastation. Let's hope those numbers don't climb.
For those that did have vine loss, here's the lead time to getting bottles back on shelves...
Rip & Replace (1+ year) - All the charred vines need to be removed and soil prepped while the vintners must source proper clones and rootstock since you can't pick up new vines at a local nursery. Then the process of planting these small saplings is quite painstaking, as they need to be individually braced and protected.
Vine Maturation (3-5 years) - The new vines will take at least 3 years to bear usable fruit but more like 5 years for Valley standards.
First Harvest (1 year) - If all goes well, the first harvest will meet expectations and go into barrels. Though, some might not meet standards and effect net yield, or need to be sold off totally.
Barrel Aging & Bottling (2-3 years) - Once crushed, the juice will go into oak barrels and be meticulously cared for (racked, topped and sampled) to ensure quality, then put into bottles.
Release and Distribution - At best you'll see affected vintages in 6 years but more likely close to 8-10 years.
“It will be awhile”, said Spencer Hoopes, founder of Hoopes Family Vineyards. He concurred that anyone with a total loss of vines will have a long journey to getting bottles back into the hands of consumers. Also, vines that may have been impacted but not scorched could also have variable characteristics in the next harvest. Thankfully for Spencer, the Hoopes vineyard was spared, being more central on the Oakville valley floor.
Speaking of harvest, you're probably wondering whether the 2017 vintage is lost or ruined with all the smoke and ash?! Fortunately, the majority of fruit is typically harvested at this point and this year was no exception. About 85% of the Valley's harvest occurred before the wildfires and is fermenting safely. However, there is still valuable fruit hanging on vines in need of being picked. As for the impact of ash and smoke, it's hard to say. In general, a Cabernet grape has thick skin and can stand some smoke without a negative impact and may in fact add interesting character. However, being exposed to intense smoke and ash render the fruit unusable. Also, proximity to heat could raisin and ruin clusters as well. So, we'll have to wait and see how everything turns out but we can at least be very thankful wine country did not suffer catastrophic loss of vineyards on a mass scale.
Two important notes to end on:
1) While most vineyards escaped major damage, thousands of residents did not - many lost EVERYTHING. Regardless of insurance, they will be burdened with major expenses not covered and likely might be unemployed for months while businesses rebuild. Financial assistance for them is desperately needed. Please give what you can to the Redwood Credit Union North Bay Fire Relief fund which will ensure support goes directly to Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Napa residents with NO ADMIN FEES. Thank you all in advance for helping the thousands who have been impacted and still will this week.
2) Wine Country will be open again for business soon, so please come! Don't cancel reservations before checking the status of your destination. It may take a week or two but the wineries, hotels and restaurants will be back with plenty of wine country beauty to offer and in need of vital tourism to rebuild and help the community.
It's been a tough week here in the Valley but everyone has come together to help including the incredible first responders from all over. Their bravery and dedication has been incredible, so a huge thank you to them all. We will come back from this better than ever, together. #winecountrystrong
-Mike Casey // The 29 Napa