Cal­i­for­nia winer­ies as­sess long-term ef­fects of wild­fires

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - OPINION - ERIC RISBERG

While few es­tab­lish­ments were de­stroyed, many op­er­a­tors must now gauge fi­nan­cial losses and da­m­ages

A month af­ter deadly wild­fires swept through Cal­i­for­nia’s famed wine coun­try, hot-air bal­loons are float­ing again over Napa Val­ley vine­yards splashed with fall colours. On the heels of the dis­as­ter, a new win­ery is open­ing, keep­ing the name it chose some time ago: Ashes and Di­a­monds.

The fires had only a min­i­mal ef­fect on the area’s winer­ies, ac­cord­ing to the Wine In­sti­tute, an ad­vo­cacy and pol­icy group. Of the 1,200 winer­ies in Sonoma, Napa and Men­do­cino, about 10 were de­stroyed or heav­ily dam­aged, and 90 per cent of this year’s har­vest was al­ready com­plete, the in­sti­tute said.

Most vine­yards were spared owing to their high mois­ture con­tent, and some even helped save sur­round­ing struc­tures by act­ing as fire breaks.

But many op­er­a­tors are now grap­pling with other long-term ef­fects from the fires that killed 43 peo­ple and wiped out 8,900 build­ings: mak­ing up for losses from be­ing closed at the busiest time of year, as­sess­ing the im­pact of smoke and other en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age on this year’s vin­tage and per­suad­ing tourists to re­turn af­ter weeks of news cov­er­age of the fires’ dev­as­ta­tion.

One of the most graphic scenes of de­struc­tion to emerge was that of the Sig­norello Es­tate win­ery en­gulfed in flames. Lost in the fire was the Napa win­ery’s sig­na­ture stone hos­pi­tal­ity build­ing. A kitchen, cor­po­rate of­fices, a wine lab and owner Ray Sig­norello Jr.’s home also were de­stroyed.

“We lost all our servers, sys­tems, com­put­ers, the things we used to do busi­ness,” Mr. Sig­norello said. But he plans to re­build and says he’s “try­ing to get peo­ple back to work.”

At Car­di­nale Win­ery in Oakville, Calif., where just one Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon vin­tage is made from prized moun­tain ap­pel­la­tions each year, wine­maker Chris Car­pen­ter is eye­ing the grapes cau­tiously. He was a rare wine­maker will­ing to say the fires’ ef­fects would be felt for years, not­ing there also will be en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues to con­tend with.

Only 50 per cent of Car­di­nale’s har­vest was fin­ished when the fires erupted, and he’s wor­ried about smoke taint­ing what re­mains.

“All the ques­tions are un­known right now, and we hope to have a han­dle on that af­ter fer­men­ta­tion,” Mr. Car­pen­ter said.

Mr. Car­pen­ter said he had a chance to try some smoke-tainted wines in 2008, and they were not very pleas­ant – such as a ba­con-flavoured wine.

“If we sense any of that, we won’t bot­tle,” he said.

Things al­ready ap­peared to be re­turn­ing to nor­mal for guests at Sonoma’s Gund­lach Bund­schu win­ery, where dozens of tourists soaked up the sun out­side the tast­ing room a few weeks af­ter the fires. Nearby black­ened hills were the only vis­i­ble re­minder of what re­cently oc­curred.

The win­ery cel­e­brated its re­open­ing with a com­mu­nity party that raised $16,000 (U.S.) for a fund to help fire vic­tims, said sixth-gen­er­a­tion vint­ner Katie Bund­schu, who over­sees mar­ket­ing and sales.

“It was a place to come and give each other hugs,” said Ms. Bund­schu, whose own fam­ily has been deal­ing with the loss of her par­ents’ home.

Now, the push is on to lure vis­i­tors back to the three counties, which to­gether saw more than $3.7-bil­lion in tourism spend­ing in 2016.

Winer­ies are fill­ing the pages of the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle with ads. “We are open and wel­come you back to Napa!” read one. Some are do­nat­ing their tast­ing room fees to wild­fire re­lief char­i­ties.

The state’s tourism com­mis­sion, Visit Cal­i­for­nia, is spend­ing $2-mil­lion on an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign to en­cour­age vis­i­tors to re­turn.

“Tourism is the wine coun­try’s lifeblood,” pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive Caro­line Beteta said. If the groups host­ing fundrais­ers spread their good­will across the re­gion, she said, “I think they will be back and run­ning and be able to host the world as they were be­fore.”

Once peo­ple un­der­stand ev­ery­thing is not burned down, tourism will re­turn within a few months, said Eric Luse, the wine­maker and owner of Eric Ross Win­ery in Glen Ellen.

Stand­ing out­side his empty tast­ing room and look­ing at pass­ing cars, he mused, “If you’re not op­ti­mistic, you are in the wrong busi­ness.”

ERIC RISBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A cou­ple tastes wine on a pa­tio out­side the Odette Es­tate win­ery in Napa, Calif., on Oct. 27. Winer­ies are be­gin­ning to re­bound a month af­ter deadly wild­fires swept through the re­gion.

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