Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: Amador winemakers hope fire’s impact is minimal

The Sand fire of Amador County was declared 100 percent contained Aug. 2, after scorching more than 4,200 acres and leaving a giant cloud of anxiety around the Sierra foothills wine country.

Now that the fires have stopped simmering, and the ominous billows of smoke have all blown away, Amador winemakers are breathing a sigh of relief. A few lingering questions remain of long-term damage to the 2014 vintage from smoke and the fire retardant dropped on some vineyards. But for the most part, members of the area’s wine industry are thankful that damage wasn’t worse and they emerged relatively unscathed.

“We were so very lucky,” said Jennifer Pechette, executive director of the Amador Vintners Association, which represents 40 of the area’s wineries. “I do think vintners feel good that no smoke was settling in the vineyards and lingering for too long.”

Chaim Gur-Arieh knows the weeklong fire could’ve taken a much more devastating turn. He operates C.G. Di Arie winery with his wife, Elisheva, near the border of Amador and El Dorado counties, and their house on the property endured some minor damage. The fire also claimed about 200 plantings of syrah grapes on a small vineyard near their house.

The winery lost its telephone service, but not electricity, and no equipment was damaged. C.G. Di Arie’s winemaking operations were basically spared at a critical time of the growing season. Harvesting in Amador County, which grows 3,700 acres of grapes, is expected to begin mid-August.

Apart from some beams of his home getting scorched and the small amount of grapes that succumbed to the fire, much of the damage is cosmetic. Residue from the fire retardant remains on the property, and the house smells of smoke.

“I don’t think the fire will have much affect on production,” said Gur-Arieh. “I lost just a couple hundred plants, and that’s from just one acre out of 40. Most of the damage was to the forest (near the house). We used to have a gorgeous-looking forest. Now, it looks like a graveyard.”

With fires burning so close to vineyards, the area’s winemakers are wondering if smoke taint will be an issue for the 2014 vintage. Smoke taint was a significant factor in 2008, when wildfires in the Anderson Valley area of Mendocino County burned for nearly a month and blanketed the area in smoke.

While a bit of campfire earthiness is sometimes considered an attribute of red wines, too much smoke can sully the balance of a wine and just not taste correct. Anderson Valley winemakers scrambled to manage 2008’s tainted vintage, using fining and filtering techniques to strip away some smokiness.

Amador vintners are hopeful that their wines will be fine. Any fire retardant that landed on grapes will be easy to wash, though treating the nearly ripe grapes now with water could cause mildew issues.

But there were moments when the situation looked downright scary for Rob Campbell, the owner of Story Winery. Campbell saw the fire come within a few hundred yards of a zinfandel vineyard, and at one point Cal Fire used the winery tasting room as a lookout point for hot spots. Ominous pictures of the fire and its thick clouds of smoke were posted on Story Winery’s Twitter feed.

“You could see the devastation from the tasting room deck,” said Campbell. “We have a lot of defensible space around the vineyards, and that’s probably what saved us. If the forest came up to the vineyards, it would’ve been a different story.”

Campbell says he’s taking a cautiously optimistic approach to smoke taint. Unlike the 2008 fires in Anderson Valley, the Sand fire was of much shorter duration and much of the smoke blew away from the vineyards and didn’t settle in the area for an extended period. Grapes are also more susceptible to smoke taint at earlier parts of the growing season rather than near harvest.

But Campbell and other vintners won’t know for sure until the juice is pressed. Some preliminary tests can measure certain amounts of smoke taint, but that effect can become amplified to various extents during the fermentation process.

For now, Gur-Arieh is just happy he has the grapes and equipment to make wine.

“The firefighters did a phenomenal job,” said Gur-Arieh. “They risked their lives and worked for many hours under difficult conditions. We were very lucky.”