California wildfires threaten wine vineyards at start of harvest season

Fire raging less than 20 minutes from Napa and Sonoma, the heart of the US’s wine industry, could damage state’s lucrative vineyards

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Part of a vineyard at the Beaver Creek Winery destroyed over the weekend in Middletown, California. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

The wildfires burning across California are threatening wineries and vineyards across the region at the start of harvest season, posing a potential risk to the state’s lucrative wine industry.

The fire in Lake County in northern California, less than 20 minutes from the heart of America’s wine country of Napa and Sonoma, had reached 73,000 acres and was 35% contained by Thursday, according to the California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire). Approximately 600 homes are destroyed, at least three people have died and others are missing as a result of the blaze.

Some vineyards in the region are currently inaccessible due to evacuation orders established by Cal Fire.

Steve Tylicki of Steele Wines in Kelseyville said the biggest obstacle facing vineyards and wineries are the road closures and whether grapes remain on the vine. “I know of some vineyards that still have 80% of their grapes on the vine and they can’t get in to irrigate, which could be problematic,” he said. Steele Wines has already harvested “well over 80%” of its grapes.

There is the potential of grapes becoming overripe and potentially unusable, he added.

Cheryl Lucido, the owner of Laujor Estate, said that she didn’t know if their grapes within the fire zone were safe and still standing. “We are all not sure of what is happening right now and we are just hoping for the best,” she said.

Current sugar saturation levels will allow a break in the harvest, Lucido said, but if the evacuation orders remain for days, or even weeks, it could hurt the ability of wineries to harvest grapes in time for wine production schedules. If the fires persist, that could potentially mean increases in prices across the country.

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A plowed up grape vineyard near Fresno, California, in the Central Valley. Photograph: Michael Nelson/EPA

“Vineyards are a good fire break and this can help the fires burn slower and assist firefighters to help stop the fire,” Lucido said, adding that the lower height of the vines helps to slow burning and could potentially extinguish a fire. That won’t do much to save the grapes, but it will help the overall ability to battle the fire, she added.

“Right now it is just a wait and see and hope that it will be all right,” Lucido said, adding that her winery and others have yet to see critical damage that would raise the price of wine across the country. However, she did point out that due to the ongoing California drought and conservation efforts by California wineries, prices have already gone up slightly.

Driving from Calistoga north towards Middletown, Hidden Valley, Cobb and other towns, where around 1,000 evacuees have fled, blackened vines are visible.

Other wineries confirmed that they were closely watching Cal Fire maps of areas affected by the fires, hoping that their vineyards are not hit by flames. “One to two days is OK, but if it continues for a while you never know what the state of the grapes will be,” Tylicki added.

Wildfires have hit California hard this year. Tens of thousands of acreage has burned, destroying hundreds of homes. The smoke, which is immediately in the taste of visitors to the affected region, could also pose a problem to grapes: in August, a number of vineyards sent their fruit to laboratories to test if the smoke amid concerns it would have an adverse affect on the taste of their wine.

California produces around 90% of American wine, according to the Wine Institute, and with sales topping $24m last year.

According to the Lake County Wine Industry, at least one winery in Middletown was destroyed by the recent fire that hit on Saturday. “We do have inventory in the warehouse to keep our orders filled and our tasting room stocked,” Michael and Adawn Woods were quoted as saying. Shed Horn Cellars produces approximately 3,000 cases of wine annually. It is unclear how they will recover for next year’s harvest.

Wineries and vineyards are unlikely to know the full extent of the damage and the potential issues that could arise from a reduced harvest until the fires subside. For now at least, the cost of bottles of California wine are not expected to change.

“It’s all about waiting and seeing,” Lucido added. “Right now, nobody has any plans to increase prices.”