“If you didn’t know,” Patsy McGaughy with Napa Valley Vintners told a group of wine writers last week, “you wouldn’t know.”
She was addressing the tenth annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, a place many called ground zero for last month’s wildfires.
“The valley floor is just as beautiful as ever.”
Driving the winding roads of Napa and Sonoma, gazing out at the red and gold autumn vineyards stretching across rolling hills and up mountainsides, it’s hard to believe this was the scene of a nightmarish drama just over a month ago.
Worst Fires in Memory
Santa Rosa was one of the towns hardest hit by the devastating wildfires that took over 40 lives and destroyed thousands of buildings.
In one neighborhood, a single house was reduced to blackened rubble while others around it were untouched. In the Coffey Park area, blocks and blocks of homes were destroyed, leaving only chimneys and burnt out cars.
Fire damage in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood
Local photographer George Rose told the bloggers conference he’s lived through many wildfires, but “nothing we’ve seen in California equals” the destruction he and his camera documented last month.
Patsy McGaughy agreed. “This one was different,” she said.
Winemaker Tries in Vain to Save Winery
On the night the fires broke out in early October, Signorello Estate winemaker Pierre Birebent rushed to the winery on Napa’s Silverado Trail.
When he arrived, “the building was still standing,” he told conference attendees, but flames were threatening. He grabbed a hose and, with two other winery workers, tried to protect the structure.
“My hose was not powerful enough to reach the top of the roof,” he said.
The smoke became so thick that he and his colleagues had trouble breathing. Finally, police ordered them to evacuate the area. They complied, but as soon as the officers left, Birebent said he returned to resume the fight for the winery.
“I did that three times,” he said.
Finally, the flames gained the upper hand. He had to back away and watch helplessly as the roof caught fire.
“That was it,” Birebent said.
He paused for several seconds at the podium as he finished his tale, visibly moved as he relived that terrible night.
For three days, he couldn’t go back to the site to see what more damage the fires had wrought.
“Three days of not knowing,” he said. “It was very painful.
When he finally was allowed back to the property, he was pleased to see that the vineyards and tank room were spared and the 2017 wine that was already fermenting was fine.
Birebent said Signorello’s owner is committed to rebuilding the tasting room over the next two years.
Wine Industry Impact
In the chaos of the first few days of the fires, social and traditional media were rife with reports that scores of wineries were destroyed and acres of vineyards incinerated.
Much of that was misinformation, according to Napa Valley Vintners’ McGaughy.
In Napa, she said, fewer than five of the county’s more than 500 wineries reported significant damage. Only fifty reported any damage at all, and only eight percent of Napa’s vineyard acres were affected.
McGaughy said 90% of Napa’s grapes had been harvested before the fire broke out, though she acknowledged many unknowns about the possible effects of smoke on the 2017 vintage.
Vintners are doing extensive lab tests on their wines right now, she said, because “no one is going to put out an inferior bottle of wine and risk their reputation.”
Open for Business
The biggest impact, McGaughy said, was the loss of visitors during what is usually peak season for California wine country.
“We are a tourism-based economy,” she told the bloggers conference. “We need people to come to Napa Valley.”
It’s an uphill battle.
“Pardon the pun,” McGaughy said, “but this was a very hot news story for a few days” in national media outlets.
“They haven’t done a good job” of following up and reporting on the recovery, she said.
Tasting rooms and hotels have seen cancellations; restaurants and shops are feeling the pinch too.
McGaughy says her agency doesn’t want to gloss over the human tragedy that occurred, but her members’ livelihoods depend on visitors coming back.
“It’s a very fine line to walk,” she said.
She’s working with regional tourism agencies to mount campaigns to tell would-be tourists there’s no reason not to visit.
Objective observation happily bears that out. The fires’ destruction is evident in a few areas, but it’s mostly hidden from view. The beauty of this region is as breathtaking as ever, and most wineries, restaurants, and shops are welcoming visitors with open arms.
Signorello won’t be able to do that for a couple of years, but winemaker Birebent says part of the operation is back up and running.
“We still have wine for sale,” he said, though only online for now. “We’re open for business.”
How to Help
Nobody denies the area will take a long time to fully recover from this disaster. Hundreds have lost homes, apartments, days of wages, and places of employment.
Many wineries, restaurants, and other area businesses are donating a portion of their proceeds to various fire relief efforts and funds, of which there are many.
All over the region, there are already signs of rebuilding, alongside many literal signs thanking firefighters and first responders.
By 2019, photographer George Rose predicts you won’t even know the fires happened.
Even now, you have to look pretty hard.
Stay tuned for more news from the Wine Bloggers Conference and new wine discoveries in Sonoma and Napa.