Fire engines streamed out of Sonoma County wine country on November 6, returning to their home bases following the containment of the once-ferocious Kincade fire. It had consumed almost 78,000 acres since igniting on October 23 in the mountainous terrain above the vineyards of northern Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. The damage, though significant, still represents just a fraction of the devastation wrought by northern California’s 2017 wine country wildfires.
At its height during the weekend of October 26, the fast-growing fire threatened the cities of Healdsburg and Windsor, leading more than 190,000 Sonoma County residents to evacuate. But a strike force assembled by the state’s fire control agency, Cal Fire, made a successful stand in defending the two cities and stopped the fire from spreading into western Sonoma.
While the fire burned around and sometimes through Alexander Valley, most of the charred acreage was in remote forest- and scrub-covered hillsides in eastern Sonoma County, centered on The Geysers geothermal district where the fire ignited. The vast majority of the region’s vineyards and wineries were left unscathed. According to Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, which represents more than 1,800 growers in the region, the harvest was nearly finished by the time the Kincade fire started, with 92% of members’ grapes harvested before October 28. Vintners are still assessing the 2019 vintage wines, which are fermenting or resting in barrel. Power was shut off preemptively through much of the region to avoid live electrical lines breaking and throwing sparks in heavy winds—the alleged cause of many of 2017’s wildfires.
Jake Bilbro of Limerick Lane Winery says his 2019 wines should be fine despite the winery losing power for eight days. “We made sure that all of our wine was protected and stored in a safe place,” Bilbro says. “Thus far, every indication is that our wine is in great shape.”
But some wineries were less fortunate. “We’re looking at the loss of our entire 2019 vintage,” says Dominic Foppoli, mayor of the Sonoma County town of Windsor and co-owner of Christopher Creek winery near Healdsburg, who fears that the wines in tanks and barrels were exposed to heat and smoke after the winery lost power. Christopher Creek was finishing the second half of its harvest and still had grapes on its crush pad when the fire became a threat. “It’s probably not salvageable after being left for eight days in the sun with no winemaker,” Foppoli says.
Picking Up The Pieces
At Soda Rock winery, which suffered major damage—including the destruction of its 160-year-old cellar building—and lost stocks of bottled wines, winemaker Antoine Favero is charting the road ahead for the wines from the 2019 vintage. Most were being made at the nearby, undamaged Mazzocco winery, where Favero is also winemaker.
“The wines were on their own for a while—unfortunate, because it started out as such an amazing year,” says Favero. “My protocol went out the door. I closed the tops of the tanks and said a little prayer and left.” His biggest fears were for the white and rosé wines, where fermentations that are normally kept in the 40° Fahrenheit range were nearing 70° Fahrenheit. Soda Rock’s tastings have resumed, but in a new venue. “We decided we were going to do a pop-up tasting in the barn that didn’t burn,” Favero says. “The amount of support that we got from community and tourists was heartwarming.”
At Jordan winery, power was never lost thanks to an on-site generator, which has become common at larger wineries. “We were able to get crews in for pump-overs every day but two during the fire,” says winemaker Maggie Kruse, noting that all of Jordan’s fruit had been picked five days prior to the fire’s start. “This year has been a fantastic vintage. Yields are wonderful and quality was great across the board. Rich, intense fruit character.”