In a Warming World, Wineries Are Facing a Growing Threat of Wildfires - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

In a Warming World, Wineries Are Facing a Growing Threat of Wildfires

Spring in Napa Valley was all shades of green: rolling hillsides of grass, canopies of trees, fresh shoots on vines blanketing the landscape. So green, in fact, that it’s almost irreconcilable with the apocalyptic images coming out of the region last fall when the Glass wildfire tore through the heart of Napa, leading to fire-lined roads, charred buildings, bulldozers carving firebreaks, and orange skies as far away as San Francisco—images only too familiar after back-to-back-to-back years of autumn fires.

Jon Berlin, winemaker at St. Helena’s El Molino Winery, first heard about the Glass fire from the manager of a barn he and his wife keep for horses on the eastern side of the valley, close to the burn site. He rushed over, found his building safe, and moved on to help a neighbor “dodge a bullet” by helping to create back burns and fight the fire on that property. That evening the fire drifted south, jumped the river, then moved to the west side of the valley before leaping into the hills behind his winery.

By the time evacuation orders came down, Berlin—who’d served as a naval firefighter in South Africa—had a loose plan in place. “The same sort of thing happened back in 2017 with the Tubbs fire, and I had a terrible feeling about evacuating. I thought I could have actually done something,” he says. “This time around, I was like, ‘I’m not leaving—I’m going to do what I can to protect the property.’ ”

With his wife and children at their grandparents’ house in Rutherford and the grapes for his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir already in, Berlin—who’s also a longtime motorbike enthusiast— spent the next week working in tandem with local fire crews, taking a GPS monitor and tracing the fire with his Vertigo Trials motorbike designed to traverse challenging terrain, returning home only to cat nap before heading out again. El Molino backs up into the heavily wooded Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and the Spring Mountain AVA, where small winding roads can hinder the fire response, which made his knowledge of the landscape and tracking ability vital for firefighting efforts.

The teamwork between firefighters and local farmers paid off—not only did the fire not touch Berlin’s winery, but they managed to save all the structures in the more perilous hills above him. And while he never felt like he was personally in danger, he says seeing the burned landscape and homes on the Silverado Trail after the fact was shocking. “The scale is immense,” he says of the Glass fire, which ended up burning more than 67,000 acres and 1,555 structures. “It takes a while to process that.”

For the future, Berlin bought a portable fire pump that he can put on the back of the truck, as well as portable water tanks that hold 500 gallons at a time. His neighbors have added huge generator systems so they can run the well-water pumps when electricity fails, and old fire trucks. “I just feel like there’s going to be more of that ‘protect yourself’ kind of thing,” he says.

To live through several seasons of wildfires in wine country is to begin to understand a whole new vocabulary. Winemakers describe the smell of fires depending on what’s burning, structures or brush, and whether the smoke is sitting high or low. On top of brix numbers and tonnage harvested, important information includes air quality data, the best type of masks for smoke, and crop insurance rates. Equipment needs now extend beyond sorting tables and forklifts to include bulldozers for building firebreaks, water tanks, generators, and even fire trucks.

Winemakers describe harvest-slash-fire season in silver linings: that they managed to get most of their grapes in, that vineyards are resilient and have natural firebreak properties, that no one was harmed.

From the distance of news headlines, wildfires can seem to blanket an area, but the truth is more complicated. A fire might only affect specific parts of a region—a run along a mountaintop or a swath down a valley. The fire part—the actual flames and the charred wreckage left in its wake—may make for the most dramatic photos, but there’s a laundry list of less-visible complications that ripple out from the initial event: grapes can become smoke-tainted, labs that test grapes for smoke are often backed up come fire season, poor air quality can make harvest difficult or impossible, tourism and tasting rooms might be shut down, workers’ homes may be burned or threatened, and mental health resources are often booked out for months.

Last year’s massive West Coast fires were set off by the “proverbial perfect storm” of atmospheric conditions, says Gregory Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in Oregon. “Number one, you already had the preconditions of an extremely dry landscape,” he says. With no rain all summer atop prolonged drought conditions, the West Coast, from Washington down to California, was primed for fire. In August, a tropical storm near Baja made its way up the coast, setting off a series of dry lightning events that set California ablaze.

While Oregon and Washington were able to manage most of the initial lightning strikes, a wind event in early September dried out the landscape, then kicked up embers from the lightning strikes. Fires raged in Southern Oregon and parts of Washington, but it was the smoke, which initially blew out over the Pacific Ocean and then resettled inland for more than a week, that put a hold on harvest during a critical time, and potentially damaged grapes with smoke taint.

If the 2020 fires were a one-off natural disaster, it would still be a huge tragedy. But it’s been a rough span of years to be a winemaker on the West Coast, as a series of now seemingly annual mass fire events since 2015 have shaken the image of wine country as the good life, leaving many to wonder if this is the “new normal.”

Unfortunately, according to Jones, it might just be. “It’s a combination of things that helped cause this scenario,” he says, pointing to climate change–induced drought and weather events, hands-off forest management practices that have left choked forests to burn more severely, and more people building homes in rural wooded lands, which expands electricity demands (many wildfires are started by downed power lines). “California has always been prone to [fire] conditions. The future is only going to make them more dramatic because drier, warmer summers are what we’re projected to see.”

But many winemakers aren’t ready to leave yet. Signorello Estate in Napa Valley suffered significant structural damage in 2017: The fast-moving fires ripped through the back of a canyon, over a hillside, jumped close to 50 feet into another property, and then moved on to Signorello, burning the tasting room, hospitality area, and the roof of the winery. Priyanka French, who joined Signorello as head winemaker in 2019, says the loss of the structures, especially the personal mementos stored at the residence, was devastating to Ray Signorello, the owner—but it was the way the old vines survived, as well as the safety of the team, that made him want to continue. Not a single vine burned— they functioned as a natural firebreak. “It was clear Ray wanted to use this opportunity for the next step forward,” French says.

Plans for the new winery and compound have a strong focus on fire safety. The building will be made from less flammable concrete, glass, and stainless steel. The entryways will double seal so that sections of the building can be cut off from smoke and fire. Heavy-duty fire-suppression systems will spray down the roof and wet the surrounding area. A generator will provide uninterrupted access to power, allowing for temperature regulation for the existing wine and fermentations, and vent systems will be outfitted with special air filters.

While the winery hasn’t been built yet—French says streamlining the permit process would help wineries get back on their feet faster—that hasn’t stopped the team from implementing a host of strategies to deal with fire in the meantime. “In 2017, I’d say we were caught off guard,” says French. “In 2020, we at least knew what we were supposed to do.” When the red flag warnings went up, they did another full property scout, looking for anything that might turn into kindling, as well as securing any loose material that could potentially create a fire hazard.

French also started sampling the fruit to get a baseline of technical data and to understand how the grapes were tasting. The whites had already been harvested by the time the 2020 fires started, but with the reds still on the vine, she started to track the progress of the grapes. “In ’17, the smoke was so much thicker and industrial because of the structure damage, but in 2020 it was mainly brush that was burning, so the smoke was much lighter and stayed suspended higher in the atmosphere. The smell wasn’t rubbery so much as campfire-like. How does that affect your fruit? No one has a concrete answer.”

French and her team saw this as an opportunity to learn. “We don’t have the full answers, but we’re learning,” she says. “As a winemaker, that’s something you have to know how to adjust your winemaking to.”

That shared knowledge bank has been growing steadily over the last five years in California, but also in other regions affected by fire, including Australia, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Chile. And while the reason for this collaboration is grim, it means that all wineries can benefit from the research.

Vintners in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, who largely escaped the fires of the last five years, got their first experience with heavy smoke in 2020—and with tapping into the larger fire information-sharing network. “It was hell,” says winemaker Alex Sokol Blosser of the 10-day period last September when Oregon became socked in with smoke. “We haven’t really dealt with that kind of smoke effect in the valley.”

Sokol Blosser, his winery, had already brought in their sparkling wine and rosé grapes, but like many in Oregon, they still had grapes on the vine when the smoke arrived, shutting down their outdoor and harvest operations. Sokol Blosser emailed a professor he knew at the University of Adelaide, who updated him on the latest research on smoke and grapes, and he in turn blasted it out to his fellow winemakers. The Oregon Wine Board also mobilized, holding Zoom seminars with scientists and winemakers about techniques that could minimize the possibility of smoke damage. At his winery, he retooled the winemaking process on the fly: cultured yeasts instead of ambient fermentation, pump overs instead of punch downs, moving the pressed juice off the skins as quickly as possible, and making plenty of press cuts.

Sokol Blossor says he wants to double down on sustainability efforts for the future. “What could be more apparent that we need to look at the triple bottom line of people-planet-profit than the pandemic of 2020 and the fires? I mean, oh my god, it’s so obvious,” he says. “We’ve got to do everything we can do.”

Fire can disrupt more than grape-growing and winemaking. In 2019, Sonoma County attracted more than 10 million visitors, with wine tourism bringing in an estimated $1.2 billion, and that’s the kind of statistic you can pull from almost any established region. But fires—even if they’re not in a winery’s immediate area—mean cancelled trips, empty tasting rooms, and understandably wary would-be travelers. “When you see these pictures of fires burning, it’s very hard to see that it’s not happen- ing everywhere in the region,” says Lisa Mattson, director of communications at Sonoma’s Jordan Winery, which runs a robust visitor program with outdoor lunches, tours, and overnight stays. “If there’s a fire around, the effort to help refund and rebook and communicate on social media—it’s become daunting,” she says.

The winery—which sits on 1,200 acres of mostly pasture and wooded area—has been physically untouched by fire so far, but that doesn’t mean it’s been unaffected: Six employees lost homes in the 2017 Tubbs fire, and the 2018 Paradise fire brought problematic smoke. The 2019 Kincade fire came right to the property’s edge, some of their growers lost homes, and winemaker Maggie Kruse had to be evacuated from her home with her daughter during her first vintage as head winemaker. In 2020, the Walbridge fire impacted two of their growers.

On-site, Jordan has invested heavily in fire prevention measures, including buying a water truck and a bulldozer, annually cutting a 20- to 30-foot firebreak around their property, and converting their ranching operation to a cattle grazing program that helps minimize invasive weeds and other kindling-type material. Their crisis communications plan, which includes the head of the visitor program, has a checklist about which parts of the winery to close down depending on the severity of the fire situation.

Mattson says the winery is beginning to follow Sonoma County Tourism’s lead in encouraging visitors to come during spring, when everything is in bloom, rather than at harvest, the more traditional wine tourism season. “It’s not that we don’t want people to come during harvest,” she says. “You can still be here and be safe.” It’s just that it potentially takes more flexibility and understanding of the way fires can spring up, air quality can change, and that rescheduling might become necessary.

In the end, having a nimble attitude may be the only way to face the new reality. “It’s part of the risk of farming. There’s only so much you can do when the fire originates from somewhere else and you get affected by the smoke,” says Andy Beckstoffer, a grape grower who owns and operates parcels of land from Lake Country down throughout Napa. Beckstoffer produces some of the most high-end Cabernet grapes for area wineries, and lately he’s had to deal with multiple fires in different regions during fire season. He’s following the latest wildfire research coming out of Australia and Europe, but there’s only so much that he can do beyond weeding, removing felled kindling, and keeping greater avenues among the vines for fire trucks. “We’ve tried all sorts of things. You can’t put so much chemicals on the grapes. There’s a clay [you can put on the grapes], but vintners don’t want any of it,” he says of one proposed mitigation-type effort. “There’s a tremendous amount of research being done to see what can be done.”

In the meantime, he has other grape-growing issues to worry about. He’s currently in trials in the Red Hills for finding combinations of grapes that will make better wine but also stand up to climate change. “I’m more worried about the drought today, the frost tomorrow,” he says. “It’s the risk of farming. The new risk in the past five years is fires.”

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