Cal­i­for­nia winer­ies as­sess fire dam­age

Times Colonist - - Business - ERIC RISBERG

NAPA, Cal­i­for­nia — 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 al­ready was com­plete, the in­sti­tute said.

Most vine­yards were spared due 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,” Sig­norello said. But he plans to re­build and says he’s “try­ing to get peo­ple back to work.”

At Car­di­nale Win­ery in Oakville, 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.

Carpenter said he had a chance to try some smoke­tainted wines in 2008, and they were not very pleas­ant — like 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 for a fund to help fire vic­tims, said sixth-gen­er­a­tion vint­ner Katie Bund­schu.

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