Monday, November 20, 2017

California Wine Strong: A Postcard From Wine Country

We took a 10-day trip to California wine country. We returned with many bottles, scores of photographs and two pads of notes. There is much to say and show about Sonoma and Napa – but nothing is more important than this post.

Eyewitness To Disaster

George Rose is a former LA Times photographer who now devotes most of his time snapping bucolic shots of Napa and Sonoma vineyards and wine estates. At 8:30 on the night of October 8, he was on a shooting assignment with a group of sommeliers but things were about to change in a hurry. He noticed a glow over the hilltops and less than three hours later, the most destructive wildfire in California history was raging, aided by Diablo winds gusting to more than 70 miles per hour.

Part of a panel on the California wildfires at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, CA, George switched to journalist mode and became an eyewitness to disaster. For three straight days he shot photos and posted 78 original stories. A fire such as this was never seen before. The fire covered 15 miles in four hours.

The toll is staggering. There were more than 40 deaths and 100 injuries. In Sonoma and Napa counties, 37,000 acres were burned. Sonoma County bore the brunt, with 12,000 homes destroyed or damaged.

For a region that depends on wine production and wine tourism, the fires delivered a staggering one-two punch – personal loss and severe damage to the region’s main industry.

We visited 11 different wineries and met staff from more than a dozen more. With each conversation we learned of the personal impact: burned homes, displaced friends and family, and uncertainty about the future.

Pierre Bierbent, winemaker at Signorello Estates and also part of the panel, was at the winery when the flames caught. He grabbed a hose and with other workers tried putting out the fire until fire crews forced them to leave. The Signorello tasting room, known for its scenic views from Napa’s Atlas Peak hills, burned to the ground.

Despite days of anxiety for Pierre, there was a glimmer of sunlight. The 2017 vintage, already in tanks and barrels, is undamaged.

“We’re Here, We’re Strong, We’re Optimistic”

Patsy McGaughey, communications director for Napa Valley Vintners, had to retreat with her staff from their office, which lost power. The team contacted each member winery to check on the safety of the staff and the status of the wineries. They were puzzled as to why state fire control websites failed to list the percentage of containment. They were to learn later that the racing fires urged on by “wicked and weird” winds had caused emergency crews to focus solely on evacuations in the beginning days of the fire.

The real story doesn’t end with the fire’s containment. It starts there.

“We’re here, we’re strong, we’re optimistic,” said McGaughey. She noted that the fires had burned the hillsides, but not the valley and displayed stunningly beautiful aerial photos of Napa Valley shot in the days after the fire.

There’s never a good time to have a devastating wildfire, but thankfully 90 percent or more of the 2017 vintage had been harvested before the flames started. One poignant photo by George Rose shows a harvester machine working in the vineyard at night while a wildfire glows behind the ridge.

Winemakers in general are optimistic about the quality of the 2017 vintage. Grapes left on the vine were mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, a hearty, thick-skinned variety. McCaughey points out that there are many unknowns about the effects of smoke on wine. Wine lovers should have no fear of 2017 wines from Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino counties – winemakers will use rigorous and repeated lab testing to make sure there are no ill effect.

Winemakers worry that the 2017 vintage might get a bad rap by consumers. “Only the best and highest quality wine will go to market,” said McGaughey. “It’s our reputation at stake.”

California Wine Strong

This is the audience participation part of the story. The fires certainly were devastating, but even as the wineries and related industries and employees attempt to recover, they are being hit with another blow – a downturn in winery visits, hotel stays, tours and diners in restaurants.

What you should know:
  • Tell your friends that the Napa Valley and Sonoma are OPEN FOR BUSINESS.
  • Tourism is the lifeblood of the local community.The road to recovery is only possible by visitors returning to Wine Country
  • Virtually every winery, restaurant, hotel, B&B, tour operator and transportation company is OPEN FOR BUSINESS.

Pierre sums it up well:
  1. Come to wine country.
  2. Enjoy a bottle of California wine.
  3. If you want to contribute to wildfire relief, do so.
Let’s pour out a little love to one of the world’s greatest wine communities.

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