California Forum

The triumph of wine country

A wildfire from a distant mountain burns over a vineyard in Kenwood on Oct. 10. Some of the largest blazes in Northern California were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world.
A wildfire from a distant mountain burns over a vineyard in Kenwood on Oct. 10. Some of the largest blazes in Northern California were in Napa and Sonoma counties, home to dozens of wineries that attract tourists from around the world. AP

The deaths and damage of this year’s wine country wildfires are a historic disaster. They are also the product of an epic California success.

 
Opinion

That triumph is our wine industry, which has come to dominate the state’s land, culture and image. It’s now outdated to refer to the burning stretches of Napa and Sonoma counties as California’s wine country. The truth is that the whole state is wine country. These fires – and the hotter ones to come via climate change – will only make it more so.

Californians fight over water, but we connect through wine. It’s a passion that binds together rural and urban, business and labor, and rich and poor. We produce both $3,499.97 Screaming Eagle varietals and the $2.99 Charles Shaw wines at Trader Joe’s.

Wine is a leading export (only three nations – France, Italy and Spain – produce more wine), and a leading home remedy, the best balm for a state that inspires the sweetest of dreams and the most bitter of disappointments.

California is a state of disaster, and where there is disaster, you will find wine. Over the past 40 years, wine has boomed not only in Northern California – from 25 Napa Valley wineries in 1975 to more than 400 in Napa and Sonoma counties today – but also in the Central Coast, the Central Valley, the Sierra foothills and even Southern California’s Inland Empire.

Wine’s growth has come at the edges of cities and towns, in the space between human development and our wilder lands. These are the places where California’s wildfires rage, and yet wine’s success has lured more people to them. This era’s giant blazes have hit all our wine countries. In addition to the awful scale and human carnage of the Napa and Sonoma fires, multiple wildfires this summer did damage to Central Coast vineyards and wineries.

Wine, of course, always has survived disaster. Indeed, the history of wine in California is a century older than the state itself. California’s saint, Junipero Serra, had vineyards planted in his 18th-century missions. Los Angeles was originally a wine country (“The City of Vines” of the 19th century), and the Napa Valley’s origins as a wine producer coincide with the Gold Rush.

While wine is often seen as an artisanal exception to California’s newer industries, it actually established the template for the culture and economy that produced aerospace, movies and software: Bring people and ideas from around the world to California, and then spin them together into new products that are exported back to the world.

As a result, California has privileged wine. Our state is famous for its high taxes, but keeps them low for wine and alcohol. So Californians have gotten used to great wine at low prices, a bit of Golden State largesse in every bottle.

In the aftermath of the fires, wine’s exalted status may come under pressure. Before the blazes, there had been conflict between wineries and their neighbors. Wineries saw housing development as encroaching on their land. Homeowners have complained about traffic and noise from the thousands of winery events and 24 million tourists who visit the Northern California wine country annually.

The tragic fires might inspire new collaborations to buffer wineries and houses. But if the fires result in more limits on where structures – be they wineries or houses – can be built, conflict is inevitable. But look for wine to win most battles. Californians like wine more than they like other people’s houses.

The wine country fires reflect the unpredictable cruelty of nature, amplified by human failings in managing our environment. For a long while, we will mourn. But human beings can handle only so much misery. Eventually, we gather, reach for the bottle, and then, as at an ancient supper described in the Gospel of Matthew, the wine “is poured out to forgive the sins of many.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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