Log In / Join Now

Oct. 20, 3:30 p.m. PST: Northern California Vintners Assess Wildfire Damage

As firefighters bring blazes under control and evacuation orders are lifted, Napa and Sonoma residents return home to see what remains; at least 11 wineries have major damage
Photo by: Courtesy Michael Mondavi Family Estate
Scorched ground and shriveled grapes were left behind at Michael Mondavi's Atlas Peak vineyard.

Augustus Weed
Posted: October 17, 2017

Updated Oct. 20, 3:30 p.m. PST: The number of wineries destroyed or severely damaged by the wildfires is now up to 11. The owner of Sill Family Vineyards said his winery was burned by the Atlas fire, though his family and his vineyards are OK. According to the Mendocino WineGrowers, Oster Wine Cellars' winemaking facility was also severely damaged.

Updated Oct. 18, 12:30 p.m. PST: More vintners are returning to their properties Wednesday, working to assess damage to vineyards and cellars. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire) reported that the Nuns fire has grown to more than 54,000 acres but is now 80 percent contained. The other major fires did not grow significantly overnight. The death toll rose to 42 after a body was found in Sonoma.


The smoke and ash remain thick over large parts of Sonoma and Napa Counties, but residents are returning and businesses are reopening. A large board outside Domaine Carneros reads, “Thank you first responders,” echoing dozens of hand-drawn signs lining the highways thanking fire crews and others who came to wine country’s aid. A sign in Sonoma Square reads, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”

Nearly two weeks after multiple blazes ignited on the same night, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire) is reporting that several of the largest fires are now mostly contained. A light rain that fell Thursday evening and into the early hours of Friday has aided their efforts, although more warm, dry weather is forecast for the coming days.

The focus is shifting to recovery as authorities lift mandatory evacuation orders, allowing residents and vintners to return to their homes and wineries and assess damage. More than 210,000 acres of land have burned throughout the state, according to Cal Fire. At least 42 people have died as a result of the fires, and more than 7,700 structures have been destroyed.

As of Friday morning, the Tubbs fire, which burned more than 36,000 acres, including entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa, is now 93 percent contained. On Monday, police lifted the evacuation order in the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, allowing residents back into the region.

Vintners whose land was in the Tubbs fire’s path are still tallying the damage to their vineyards. On Oct. 13, the Fountaingrove District Winegrowers Association released a statement saying that it had heard from 33 of its members and other growers in the area, and that 14 homes had been destroyed as well as eight vineyards, estimated to total 90 acres of vines. A few large vineyards are still cut off and unaccounted for. Nearby, closer to Calistoga, Charles Johnston of Helena View Johnston Vineyards came home to find much of his winery burned, with barrels and bottles charred.

The Nuns fire that hit the Sonoma Valley areas of Glen Ellen and Kenwood and then damaged vineyards and wineries on Napa’s Mount Veeder, had burned more than 54,000 acres as of Friday morning and was 85 percent contained. On Monday, Oct. 16, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office lifted the mandatory evacuations in Glen Ellen, Boyes Hot Springs and Kenwood. “Welcome home,” read a message on the department’s Facebook page. “If you live in these areas, you can return home now.”

But there is still restricted access to parts of Highway 12, the main artery where many of the wineries are located. Michael Muscardini of Muscardini Cellars says the road closures are causing some issues for growers in Kenwood.

Muscardini reports that his tasting room was unharmed and he is trying to harvest his remaining Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. “We are trying to coordinate a pick, which will happen [Wednesday],” he said. But he added that one of the challenges is getting pickers and trucks into the region.

More reports of damage are coming in from Napa Valley’s Atlas Peak, where residents are shifting through the ruins. The Atlas fire had destroyed more than 51,600 acres as of Friday, but was 87 percent contained.

The Atlas fire destroyed or severely damaged six wineries, including Sill Family Vineyards. Winemaker and owner Igor Sill told Wine Spectator in an email Friday that his winery, including all of the equipment and a guesthouse, were incinerated, but his vineyards survived. In 2016, Sill purchased the former Ardente Estate Winery, including more than 24 acres planted on Atlas Peak. The family also owns a vineyard in St. Helena.

Robert Michael Mondavi Jr., of Michael Mondavi Family Estate, reported that the vineyard they use for the Animo cuvée was scorched by flames and the fruit was lost. “Our organic Atlas Peak vineyard had 95 percent burn-through,” he told Wine Spectator via email. “We don’t use herbicides, we mow. So the stubble burned, causing damage to end posts and irrigation lines. A few spots had no burn and we tried crushing those grapes. However, it released so much aroma of smoke we had to stop. This resulted in 100 percent crop loss from Animo for the 2017 vintage.”

Mondavi says that the fire had spared the vineyard during the first 48 hours of its spread. “Once Cal Fire determined it was safe, we were offered access to the vineyard to harvest,” he said. “As we crested the peak of Soda Canyon, Cal Fire stopped our escort and informed us that within the past 20 minutes the winds and fire conditions had changed.” Mondavi and a colleague stayed and gave fire crews details of the terrain and the teams combated the flames, but the fire did not spare the vineyard. He says a few acres are burned, but most should recover.

Helena View Johnston Vineyards
The charred barrel room at Helena View Johnston Vineyards near Calistoga.

A spokesperson for E. & J. Gallo reported that the Stagecoach vineyard, 600 acres of vines used by multiple wineries, sustained minor damage from the Atlas fire, but nothing substantial.

The Atlas fire also impacted the small Wild Horse Valley appellation east of Coombsville, along the border of Solano County. David Mahaffy of Heron Vineyard and Winery told Wine Spectator that the Atlas fire reached his vineyards Oct. 9. He helped battle flames as they approached his neighbor’s property, but had to evacuate. The fire destroyed a storage building on his property that housed 100 cases of wine. Thankfully, the majority of his wines are stored offsite.

Mahaffy, who grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, had already harvested his grapes before the fires struck. He said the flames swept through his vineyard, damaging the irrigation lines and bird netting and passed directly over his wine cave, which was unharmed. “The leaves on the vines are still green after a few days, so there is some hope” that they survived, he said.

Significant progress has been made in Mendocino County, where evacuation warnings have been lifted for the Redwood Valley and Potter Valley areas. The Redwood fire had burned nearly 36,000 acres and was 95 percent contained as of Friday, while firefighters reported 92 percent containment of the Sulphur fire in the community of Clearlake in Lake County.

According to the Mendocino WineGrowers, the Redwood Valley and Potter Valley fires destroyed more than 400 houses and severely damaged three wineries including Oster Wine Cellars' winemaking facility. At its height, the Redwood Valley fire threatened 38 vineyards, totaling 1,200 acres, with five vineyards located in Potter Valley's fire zone. Bernadette Byrne, executive director of the Mendocino WineGrowers, says vintners are still assessing the damage. “At this time it seems the majority of the vineyards escaped extensive damage,” she said.

At least 11 wineries have been confirmed significantly or totally damaged—six in Napa, including Patland Vineyards, Roy Estate, Signorello Estate, VinRoc, Sill Family and White Rock Vineyards; Sonoma's Paradise Ridge Vineyards and Helena View Johnston and Mendocino's Oster, Frey Vineyards and Backbone Vineyard & Winery. So far, more than 275 of Napa Valley Vintners' 500 member wineries have reported in. As of Friday, 20 members report some degree of damage to their winery, outbuildings or vineyards. Sonoma is still tallying damage reports.

Resources continue to flood into the region from throughout California and neighboring states to battle the blazes. According to Cal Fire, more than 10,000 firefighters were on the lines Friday morning.

The Oct. 8 and 9 firestorms were stoked by gusting and bone-dry northerly winds of almost 70 mph and dry vegetation resulting from the previous five years of drought. On Tuesday, the wind was almost non-existent and rain is forecast for Thursday, but conditions continue to be hot and very dry, providing plenty of fuel for the flames.

For more updates on how the region’s wineries are faring, see “California Fires: Damage Updates from Wineries.”

With additional reporting by Aaron Romano, Augustus Weed, Tim Fish, Dana Nigro and Mitch Frank

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.