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The Latest on the Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Wildfires

October 11, 2017

Fire and smoke behind Quixote winery in Napa

October 11, 2017 —The numbers are staggering: nearly two dozen separate fires, 21 dead, as many as 500 people unaccounted for, and more than 3,500 homes, businesses, and wineries destroyed or damaged according to CalFire, the state department of forestry and fire protection. More than 115,000 acres burned, vines singed and torched, more than 20,000 people evacuated, no power and cell service—and more to come, as winds pick up again today, sweeping still burning cinders onto dry grass and trees.

In videos of what’s going on you can hear the terrifying rush of wind, the crackle of flames licking hillsides, the crack of trees, and see the flying burning embers through a thick haze of smoke and ashes in the air that make familiar landmarks invisible.

And all this in some of the most beautiful wine regions on the planet, whose bottlings are enjoyed by millions of wine lovers around the world.

Those who visit often, like me, watch with sickening dread and worries for those we know, looking for news.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Napa Register, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle struggle to keep up. Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and email alerts provide scraps of the latest information. Esther Mobley of the SF Chronicle is on the scene tweeting; you can follow her @Esther_Mobley. You feel like cheering when a winery that was reported destroyed, like Gundlach Bundschu, posts a notice that it’s actually okay. Then you look again at the latest photos of destruction.

Among the most recent emergency alerts are a list of mandatory evacuations for parts of Calistoga because of the expansion of the deadly Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, and for Mount Veeder, Geyserville, and Sonoma Mountain

In Napa, Signorello winery is in ruins, but Ray Signorello’s already bottled 2015 red and 2016 white wines are safe in a storage facility in American Canyon, according to a statement from the winery, and he plans to rebuild. The winemaking and vineyard teams fought the fire Sunday night, but had to retreat when flames did not.

White Rock winery doesn’t appear so lucky. It’s destroyed, made clear by photos of bottled wine in ashy heaps. Ditto Vin Roc Winery on Atlas Peak, where the fate of giant Stagecoach Vineyard is still unknown.

Sonoma’s beautiful Paradise Ridge winery burned down on Monday, but its estate vineyards survive, and the Byck family vows to rebuild.

Three wineries in Mendocino didn’t make it.

Napa winemaker Aaron Pott emailed that his wines, which he makes at Quixote Winery off the Silverado Trail are fine, but battled to keep his diesel tank from exploding with two fire extinguishers and a garden hose. Now he has another worry: the flames from the fire that started in the Sonoma town of Glen Ellen has climbed up the back of Mt. Veeder and are threatening his vineyards and house there. The house, he says, is probably gone.

Also under threat is Pym-Rae, the Robin Williams property on Wall Road purchased by Bordeaux’s Chateau Pontet Canet, whose vineyards I toured just last month, iconic estate Mayacamas, the Hess Collection and its museum full of great contemporary art, Lagier-Meredith, and many more.

Last night Tom Gamble of Napa’s Gamble Family Vineyards spoke to me via phone. “Yes, there have been bad fires in the past,” he said, “but this one is special. I don’t remember one that’s destroyed so much.” (Gamble owns vineyards in Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and on Mt. Veeder, which he hasn’t yet harvested.) He points out that’s partly because back in the 1930s, and during big fires in 1964 and 1981, there were only a handful of wineries and little residential development.

“Vineyards are like firebreaks,” he sighed. “They burn slowly.” Gamble, like others, rushed to cover open tank fermenters to prevent falling ash from tainting the wine.

Every hour, it seems, brings new apocalyptic photos and information.

But wine industry people are fighting back.

They’re rounding up resources from unaffected wine regions for critical equipment like tractors, trailers, generators, as well asking vineyard workers to help in wineries now under siege ( http://bit.ly/2wNVda0).

Kimberly Charles, who represents a number of California wineries, has set up a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/fire-relief-napa-sonoma-counties) for people to donate money for basic items for evacuees in shelters.

It looks like it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fires Scorch Chile’s Vineyards

January 26, 2017

As you may have heard, forest fires are devastating Chile’s vineyards, including 100-year-old vines in the region of Maule, an area that has been undergoing a winemaking renaissance, with dozens of terrific small vintners. (They were also hammered by the earthquake in 2010.)

As I write this, the Chilean grape and wine growers association is in an emergency meeting to determine just who and how many vineyards are involved. It’s too soon to say what effect this natural disaster will have on the country’s exports, including its high-end Cabernet and Carménère. Stay tuned….

Tasting Wine in London with Richard Vines

April 30, 2015

Over lunch with Bloomberg restaurant critic Richard Vines at London’s Grain Store Unleashed, we worked through all the wine by glass selections.  Vines included my tasting notes in his don’t-miss review.

I’ll Drink To That! Talking Wine with Levi Dalton

February 24, 2015

Levi Dalton interviewed me for one of his much visited I’ll Drink To That! podcasts.  The link is here.

The Sweet Subject of Sauternes

May 11, 2013

James Tarmy, who writes on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, interviewed me recently on the subject of Sauternes, the great sweet wine of Bordeaux.  The interview is here.

Wine Crime in Montalcino

December 5, 2012

One of the worst wine crimes I’ve heard about occurred last Sunday night in Montalcino at the winery of one of the top producers of Brunello di Montalcino, Gianfranco Soldera.

According to various accounts – I read about this at Jeremy Parzen’s dobianchi.com, the first in the U.S. to report the event – someone broke into the Soldera cellars and opened the valves of big oak casks aging the last six years  of Soldera’s superb Case Basse Brunello, allowing the wine to flood out over the floor. Soldera only makes about 15,000 bottles a year, which sell for $200 to $350. Destroying much of the vintages 2007 to 2012 seems to me far beyond vandalism.

What kind of person would do this?

Soldera is a strict traditionalist, and the maestro of Brunello. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a number of vintages of his cult red, including the sublime 1980 Riserva.

Rumor has it that it might be vengeance, or, as they say in Italian opera, una vendetta. Soldera was outspoken in his objections to any change in traditional Brunello, such as aging in small French oak barrels or deviating from the concept of Brunello as a wine made from 100 percent Sangiovese grapes. That’s embodied in the regulations, but in 2008, it was discovered that various producers were illegally blending unauthorized grapes into their Brunellos. Several were indicted, in a scandal that became known as Brunellogate.

Sadly, even if whoever is responsible is caught, that won’t bring back all that beautiful lost wine.

At EWBC digital wine conference in Izmir, Turkey

November 21, 2012

Last week I was in Izmir, Turkey to moderate a communication workshop at the EWBC digital wine communications conference, and had the chance to taste an amazing array of wines from Turkey and surrounding countries—and while I was there visit Istanbul, Ephesus, and Cappadocia.  More all on this in coming columns….