In what has become a sad, yearly ritual, northern California’s wine country is once again ablaze. Uncontained wildfires threaten the region’s residents, vineyards, wineries, and the quality of the harvest itself.
Cal Fire (the state agency with a self-explanatory name) reported that the Glass Fire began a around 4am on Sunday (9.27) and quickly spread through Napa into the hilly area between Calistoga and St. Helena. The initial report was followed by the news that several other fires are now also during throughout Napa and Sonoma.
Authorities stated that the inferno consumed 11,000 acres and was zero percent contained at press time. 26 crews comprised of 1070 personnel, five helicopters, 133 engines, 35 bulldozers, and 22 water tenders were on site at press time.
Numerous evacuations were ordered for the area. Affected properties include several wineries, Advent Health Hospital, Calistoga Ranch, and Meadowood Resort.
Official reports have not yet included property loss, but reports are beginning to trickle in. Along the Silverado Trail, the 41-year-old Chateau Boswell was swallowed by flames. The Calistoga Ranch is also destroyed according to several local reports.
Others were more fortunate (so far). Despite close proximity to the flames, Charles Krug and Duckhorn Vineyards both reported that they escaped the worst of the risk.
“Thanks to the heroic efforts of fire crews last night, Duckhorn Vineyards is standing tall, and our staff (including our beloved winery cat Kitter) is out of harm’s way,” Duckhorn posted on Twitter. “Our hearts go out to our neighbors during this difficult time. The winery will remain closed today.”
Similar to the 2019 Kincade Fires, 2017 Wine Country Fires and the 2017 Mendocino Complex Fires, many wineries are crediting their vineyards with offering protection. The relatively “cleared” nature of the vines coupled with the high moisture content in grapes and vines is believed to provide a buffer against flames.
However, unlike most previous fires, the risk for smoke taint is high given that the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest is not yet complete. Grapes can be affected at any point in the growing cycle, but are at their most vulnerable to smoke taint roughly one month from harvest. The volatile compounds in smoke that taint the wine are primarily absorbed by the waxy outer layer of the grape. Grape leaves are also vulnerable to smoke. Even distance doesn’t provide much relief: Fires within a radius of nine miles have shown to affect wine and impart smoke taint character.
Smoke taint imparts a smoky, meaty and burnt character to wines. Some might think that doesn’t sound that bad, reminiscent of a Porter beer or an Islay Scotch perhaps? Not quite. Smoke taint imparts a one-dimensional profile, not to mention a particularly ashtray-like aftertaste.
The harsh reality is that smoke taint has a severe economic impact on farmers. Typically classified as a wine fault, high quality wine cannot be produced from smoke tainted grapes. Generally, the winemakers sell what can be salvaged as bulk production hoping to break even.
Several other fires are threatening the state including the Bobcat Fire outside of Los Angeles and a pair of blazes moving towards Napa from Santa Rosa.
Photo Courtesy of the brave heroes of the Fairfield FD.