Cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah grapes most threatened by wine country fires

Watch 3 days of shifting wine country fire smoke from space

Satellite imagery shows the numerous fires burning across Northern California – including the Tubbs, Redwood, Atlas, Cherokee and Wind Complex fires.
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Satellite imagery shows the numerous fires burning across Northern California – including the Tubbs, Redwood, Atlas, Cherokee and Wind Complex fires.

Fire is tearing through a region that produces some of the world’s priciest wines.

The Atlas, Tubbs and other devastating wildfires roaring through parts of Northern California have taken aim at the world-renowned vineyards and wineries of Napa and Sonoma counties, thrusting a multibillion-dollar industry into chaos.

A few small wineries have completely burned down, including Napa’s Signorello Estate and White Rock Vineyards, while others lost barns and other buildings. Tasting rooms throughout Napa and Sonoma are shuttered until further notice, putting a huge tourism business on hold. Growers are scrambling to protected unharvested grapes and unfinished wines from smoke damage and spoilage.

The losses will add up to “a big number, hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Tom Pagano, a vice president at insurance conglomerate Aon’s food and agribusiness unit in Sacramento.

One saving grace: As much as 90 percent of this year’s grapes already have been harvested, as a late-summer heat wave prompted growers to take many of their grapes off the vines earlier than usual.

“The heat spike over Labor Day weekend, which all the farmers grumbled about, sparked a couple of very fast and furious weeks of harvesting,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade association. “We’re still trying to wrap our arms around whatever damage has been done (by the fire) to the remaining grapes.”

One big problem though: The priciest grapes are the ones, by and large, that are still on the vine. Kaan Kurtural, a UC Davis viticulture scientist who works out of Napa Valley, said the unharvested grapes are mainly cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.

“This is premium stuff,” he said. Napa cabernet sauvignon grapes sell for about $6,800 a ton, among the highest price paid for grapes anywhere on earth.

Of chief concern is whether grapes still on the vine have been affected by a phenomenon known as “smoke taint,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Kurtural fears that at least some of the grapes will be rendered unusable by the heavy smoke.

“It’s like you’re standing next to a mesquite barbecue grill,” Kurtural said. Anita Oberholster, an agricultural chemist at UC Davis, said “even 30 minutes (of smoke) could affect the grapes.”

Wine industry consultant Robert Smiley, a UC Davis professor emeritus, said the smoke taint could crimp supplies.

“Those grapes will either be discarded or blended with lower-cost wines,” Smiley said. “They won’t be getting the $7,000 to $10,000 (per ton) prices.”

Because of worldwide competition, however, it’s uncertain whether supply shortfalls in California would affect consumer prices. “There’s a constraint on pricing; it’s called Europe, Chile,” Smiley said.

In any event, it’s too early to determine how much damage has been done to the grapes. Kruse said she was told by several Sonoma growers that by this point in the season, the unharvested grapes are mature enough that they probably could withstand the effect of the smoke. Another trade association, Napa Valley Vintners, said it too believes the remaining grapes can escape the smoke effects.

“Of the grapes remaining on the vine, it is almost all cabernet sauvignon. Our winemakers report that this thick-skinned variety, fully-developed and ready to be picked for the 2017 harvest, is not expected to be impacted by the smoke from the fires,” the Napa group said on its website Wednesday.

Although fires were continuing to rage Wednesday, with minimal containment, Kruse said it appeared that comparatively few grapevines actually had burned. In many cases, the fires torched the ground cover between vines, she said.

Pagano, the Aon executive, said most wineries will have insurance on their buildings and the year’s crops. But in all likelihood they don’t have coverage for their vines.

“There’s no insurance for it,” he said. “You have these vines that take five, 10, 20 years to become fully productive, and it’s going to be a long business-income loss.”

Throughout the Napa-Sonoma region, winery officials have been scrambling to keep fruit and unfinished wines from spoiling. Kurtural said many wineries are shipping their raw product to safe places such as Lodi. Others that have lost power are hauling generators onto their properties to protect fruit that needs to stay refrigerated as it undergoes fermentation.

Before being evacuated, “we were seeing a lot of auxiliary generators being towed,” Kurtural said.

Winery executives have taken to social media to lament their losses. The owners of Paradise Ridge, in the Kenwood area of Sonoma County, reported that “we are heartbroken to share the news that our winery burned down.” Later they posted, “We are strong and will rebuild.”

Ray Signorello Jr. of Signorello Estate, on the Silverado Trail in Napa, said the winery had been destroyed although its bottled wines from 2015 and 2016 were safely stored in American Canyon.

Napa and Sonoma account for just 12 percent of the wine grapes harvested in California, but they generate $1 billion a year in crop income. That’s 40 percent of the state total, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Wine generates $7.2 billion in annual tourism business for California, drawing 23 million visitors a year

Many winery executives said Wednesday they were more concerned with the safety of their employees than their bottom lines. The Napa and Sonoma wineries and vineyards employ 100,000 workers combined.

“At this point in time, vineyards aren’t the thing taking the beating. It’s people,” said Craig Ledbetter of Vino Farms, a Lodi winery that owns 6,500 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. “That’s what we as a company are concentrating on.”

Ledbetter said Vino employs more than 600 workers combined in Napa and Sonoma.

Massive wildfires continue to sweep through Northern California's wine region, forcing emergency evacuations and destroying more than 2,000 buildings. The fires began Sunday evening, though the initial cause is under investigation.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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