Lucky escape for California’s vineyards

For a fortnight starting October 8, northern California was in the throes of dozens of wild fires. We go back over events and look at their impact on the wines.


Vines withstand flames, but tourism doesn’t

After four or five years of drought, last winter at last saw plentiful rain. Plants sprung back to life and combined with the dead wood on the ground, provided excellent fuel for the fires. What is remarkable about them, though, is how fast they spread. ‘El Diablo’, the name Mexican seasonal workers have given to the local wind, fanned the flames. The vines themselves were rarely affected – a miracle that many wine growers will tell you – because they are extremely fire-resistant, particularly in California where irrigation is authorised. The buildings, wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants and hotels suffered the greatest damage. For many Americans, wine country is an incredible place for leisure time, particularly in the autumn. Nearly 24 million people visit the region – people get married there and spend their holidays in the area – netting 2 billion dollars a year for Napa County alone.


Impact at the top end

The wildfires affected wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, but left the Central Valley – which accounts for 70% of Californian wine by volume – unscathed. The three former counties are the birthplace of the region’s top wines. Some iconic wineries suffered damage, including Frey (buildings only), Signorello Estate (buildings only), White Rock, Stag’s Leap and Paradise Ridge. Apart from the fact they were well insured, Donald Trump also declared the fires a natural disaster, both of which should ensure the wineries will be rapidly back in business. Rebuilding will probably comply with even stricter fire and earthquake-proof standards.

In places where vineyards where affected, fortunately over 85% of the grapes had already been harvested. Only the Cabernets, whose thick skins delay ripening, were still left, particularly in the prominent vineyards where hang-time is even longer than the norm. Smoke in this instance may penetrate the grapes and make them unusable. Similarly, smoke may have entered some tanks. Although the wines can be filtered to remove any residue, the technique is unthinkable for the top wines which need to hang on to all their aromas. Even worse, the flames may have heated the wine and turned it to vinegar. A lot of analyses are still ongoing. Out in the vineyards, potential damage can only be ascertained next spring.


Ultimately, a drop in production at the top-end for two or three years may lead to a rise in retail prices. The University of California at Davis therefore estimates that wines selling for $66 a bottle may rise to $100. Damn!


Written by Alain Echalier