Last summer, California wildfires wreaked havoc in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma. Now, a new inferno, the Mendocino Complex Fire–projected to be the largest in state history–is threatening the vineyards and wineries in neighboring Mendocino, Colusa, and Lake counties. While most vineyards are conducting business as usual, questions remain about the fate of the grapes still on the vine.
The Mendocino Complex is actually two different fires, the River and Ranch fires. CalFire reported that the combined blazes scorched 290,692 acres or about 454 square miles, an area roughly the size of Los Angeles county.
On Tuesday (8.07) morning, CalFire reported that the blue was about 34% with full containment not projected until September 1. To aid that cause, the agency committed 3908 people, 441 engines, 93 water tenders, 15 helicopters, and 85 dozers to fighting the massive inferno.
Unlike last year’s wine country fires, the Mendocino Complex blazes have largely been confined to remote areas. No civilians have been killed or injured and only one firefighter was injured. Still, 75 residences and 68 other structures were destroyed according to CalFire. An additional 11, 300 structures are threatened Mandatory evacuations are in place in portions of al three counties.
Mendocino and Lake County are home to hundreds of vineyards including some big names like Scharffenberger, Fetzer, Steele, and Diamond Ridge. Due to the fire’s inland location, the region’s winemakers have been largely spared. In fact, calls to several area wineries revealed that most tasting rooms are even up and running.
However, with harvest still a few weeks out, the risk of “smoke taint” Smoke taint can occur when smoke and ash particles land on grapevines. The result are unwelcome additions to the grape’s flavor profile. Most significantly 4-methylguaiacol. (Food science types call it 4-MGu for short) adds the taste and smell of a fire pit to the wine. So far, winds have kept the smoke largely away from the grapes.
Despite the rosy prognosis to date, CalFire cautioned that much risk remains. The agency is scrambling to increase containment lines and link them to Scotts Valley Road, but last year’s wine country disaster provides a reminder that with a simple shift of the wind, flames can jump these barriers and threaten new areas.