U.S. winer­ies, their liveli­hoods scorched, face long road ahead

Reper­cus­sions could linger for many years

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Marco della Cava and El­iz­a­beth Weise

Cal­i­for­nia’s suntinged wine coun­try is fa­mil­iar with the life and death of the grow­ing cy­cle, from green buds to pur­ple grapes to dry, gnarled vines. But the fires sweep­ing through three wine-grow­ing coun­ties have shaken this cy­cle to a core, with pos­si­ble reper­cus­sions for years to come.

As thou­sands of firefighters try to con­tain 10 North­ern Cal­i­for­nia blazes, vine­yards in Napa, Sonoma and Men­do­cino coun­ties are com­ing to grips with the dam­age and what they should do to re­build — if they do.

“In terms of (fu­ture) pro­duc­tion, a lot of peo­ple will have to re­build and re­plant, so we’re bound to see a bit of a (grape) short­age,” says Mary McAuley, founder of Ripe Life Wines in Healds­burg, which buys its grapes from vine­yards in nearby Men­do­cino County.

She counts her­self lucky that her win­ery man­aged to miss the flames in­cin­er­at­ing other parts of

Sonoma County.

The re­gion’s fires, some of which were still un­con­tained Wednesday, have al­ready claimed at least 21 lives and re­sulted in the de­struc­tion of 3,500 homes and busi­nesses.

“But I think, longer term, a lot of peo­ple are going to bring in more tech­nolo­gies to pro­tect against earth­quakes and fire dam­age now that they have to re­build their fa­cil­i­ties.”

Some may even choose not to re­build, she said. Wine in­dus­try ex­perts say that even if a win­ery’s vine­yards re­main stand­ing, they face steep chal­lenges as their em­ploy­ees strug­gle with burned or dam­aged homes. The re­gion counts wine and tourism as top em­ploy­ers, and many work­ers who pick grapes or work in ho­tels may be com­pelled to move after los­ing ev­ery­thing.

Napa and Sonoma coun­ties are home to around 900 winer­ies (of 4,600 statewide), with most bou­tique busi­nesses mak­ing high­erend wines. The two coun­ties rep­re­sent 13% of the state’s out­put. And the state it­self sup­plies 85% of the na­tion’s wine pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it the fourth-largest pro­ducer of wines after Italy, France and Spain.

North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try is laced with mountains and val­leys that partly de­ter­mined which neigh­bor­hoods and busi­ness got hit. A big­ger fac­tor were the winds, which whipped by at 60 mph or more, seal­ing the fate of any­thing in the fire’s path.

At least six winer­ies — Par­adise Ridge, Paras Vine­yards, Chateau St. Jean, Sig­norello Es­tate, Gund­lach Bund­schu and White Rock Vine­yards — ap­pear to have sus­tained vary­ing amounts of dam­age.

The re­gion’s grow­ers may have tim­ing on their side. By mid- Oc­to­ber, many va­ri­eties of grape will have al­ready been har­vested, with spe­cific va­ri­eties such as caber­net per­haps re­main­ing on the vines.

ERIC RISBERG, AP

Burned bot­tles lay among the de­bris at Sig­norello Es­tate win­ery in Napa, Calif., on Tues­day.

JOSH EDEL­SON, AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Owner Rene Byck looks over the re­mains of his Par­adise Ridge Win­ery in Santa Rosa, Calif. A note on the win­ery’s web­site said its “es­tate vine­yards sur­vived.”

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