Wine operations show resiliency with fires

Valley fire flames burned to the edge of grapes at the Langtry Estate, seen Monday Sept. 14, in Butts Canyon near Middletown.
Valley fire flames burned to the edge of grapes at the Langtry Estate, seen Monday Sept. 14, in Butts Canyon near Middletown. The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat

Returning from a trip to nearby Kelseyville, Michael Wood arrived in Middletown just as the Valley fire approached his Shed Horn Cellars winery. Racing through the flames on Sept. 12, he salvaged a few personal items before fleeing to safer ground. The blaze ultimately claimed Wood’s home and production facility, where he produces 3,000 cases of Lake County wine annually.

The Butte and Valley fires have moved through parts of Northern California’s wine country just as winemakers are in the midst of 2015’s grape harvest. According to the Lake County Winegrape Commission, an estimated 15 percent of the area’s vineyards have been scorched by the Valley fire, or about 1,300 acres. The extent of damage from the Butte fire is still being assessed in Calaveras County, home to 900 acres of vineyards. The fires have affected parts of Napa, Sonoma and Amador counties as well.

The loss has been devastating for Wood, but he expects Shed Horn Cellars to press forward through the 2015 vintage. Other Northern California winemakers in proximity to the Valley and Butte fires are showing a similar resiliency.

“We’re a small facility and had a lot of case goods and bulk wine in another location,” said Wood, who is staying with friends while the damage to his property is being assessed. “So we’re still in business. But the worst part was losing your home and everything we had. I’m down to a toothbrush.

“We’re going to be fine as far as production,” Wood continued, adding that he’ll use another facility to make his wine. “We had most of the fruit off (the vine) and processed. We have good, solid inventory and are taking care of customers.”

According to winemakers, the bulk of California’s white wine grapes already had been picked when the Butte and Valley fires hit, but red varietals likely will remain on the vine through September.

Along with making California susceptible to wildfires, drought conditions also have pushed up the harvest season for the state’s wine grapes. Unseasonably warm weather in early 2015 resulted in the harvest arriving about three weeks earlier than normal. In Napa, some grapes used for sparkling wines were plucked as early as July 22 – well before their usual mid-August harvest.

Winery owners will be checking for signs of smoke taint long after the fires are extinguished. Excess smoke can contaminate the skins of wine grapes and result in smoky, off-flavored wines.

Heavy smoke from a series of Northern California fires in 2008 led to tainted wines from the Anderson Valley, an area of western Mendocino county known for its pinot noir. Winemakers used filtration and other techniques to strip smoke taint from their wines, but there’s no method that’s 100 percent effective. According to Maria Navarro, a winemaking specialist with Enartis Vinquiry, which provides laboratory services for the winemaking industry, the effects of smoke taint might not be revealed until the wine matures with age.

“When wine (grapes) are affected by fire, initially we don’t know how bad it is,” Navarro said. “There’s lots of variables. Winemakers are getting better at working around (smoke taint). In 2008, people were not as prepared. Now, we know a lot more about what’s happening and how to deal with the grapes.”

Wood said he isn’t overly concerned about smoke taint related to the Valley fire, even though some cabernet sauvignon grapes have yet to be picked. He said he’s run some preliminary lab tests on grapes and has been assured by the results.

“The smoke didn’t sit in the area for very long,” Wood said. “It was bad on Saturday and Sunday, and then the winds changed and it’s been clear. We’ve done some testing (of grapes) and they’ve tested well.”

Jeff Stai, owner of Twisted Oak Winery in Murphys, also remains optimistic that his grapes haven’t been ruined by smoke. The flames roared just a few miles from Stai’s tempranillo vineyards, as the Butte fire raged through Calaveras County, but most of his grapes already had been harvested. The smoke and ash mostly cleared within a couple days, he said, and he’s confident that his yet-to-be-picked mourvedre grapes will be usable.

“Mourvedre is smoky by nature,” Stai said. “That’s my barbecue-ribs wine. I’m not assuming that we’re free (from smoke taint), but if that’s the case, we’ll do our best to work with it.”

Meanwhile, the wine industry in Lake and Calaveras counties is getting back to work. According to the Lake County Winegrape Commission, as of Wednesday, 90 percent of the wineries in the fire-affected areas had resumed operations. Despite the losses to Wood’s home and winemaking operation, he believes Shed Horn Cellars wines will emerge from the fiery 2015 vintage with its usual production.

“I’ve been sleeping on floors, trying to comprehend what’s going on, but we still have harvest going,” Wood said. “We can’t stop now.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias