by Karl H. Kazaks
Tinder dry conditions spurred by four years of drought helped feed devastating wildfires across the western U.S. this year, impacting wine producers in all three Pacific coast states.
In California, the Valley and Butte fires delayed harvest and damaged winery structures. In Calaveras County, the Butte fire torched at least 14 acres of vines.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, total acres burned in Washington measure almost three times total acres burned in California. One small winery in the Lake Chelan AVA, Ventimiglia Cellars, was entirely destroyed.
In Oregon, smoke from fires in that state as well as Washington and Idaho poured into the Willamette Valley. The haze made for difficult working conditions.
In many locations, people expressed concern over smoke taint. It appears, however, that for most regions there will be little risk of smoke despoiling the quality of 2015 wines, as most of vineyards which did come into contact with smoke experienced that contact relatively late in the growing season – and for relatively short periods of time. With perhaps some areas of Washington as an exception, the 2015 wine harvest – as affected as it was by fire – won’t be a repeat of the 2008 California North Coast wine season.
The interagency fire center reports over 9.27 million acres burned so far nationwide this year, making 2015 one of the four worst years since 1960 in terms of total acreage burned.
The Valley Fire
Lake County is home to about 35 wineries and 8,700 acres of wine grapes. Many of the vineyards are located along the southwestern edge of Clear Lake. In July and August of this past summer, two large fires cut across large swaths of eastern Lake County, but didn’t threaten most of the county’s wine industry.
The harvest in Lake County began early, in part due to prevailing drought conditions. Harvest was about a month in when the Valley Fire originated, in the southern part of the county.
The fire coursed between Clear Lake and the Guenoc Valley AVA and spread to parts of Napa and Sonoma Counties. At one point there was concern that Napa’s hallowed Howell Mountain AVA would be threatened. But prevailing winds from the southwest kept fire and smoke out of Napa Valley vineyards.
In Lake County, however, Shed Horn Cellars and Langtry Winery both lost buildings. One of the most marked impacts, however, was how the fire, which erupted just over halfway through harvest, affected the picking of fruit.
At first, evacuation orders meant picking in some areas ground to a halt. According to Terry Dereniuk, the Executive Director of the Lake County Winery Association, “the ability to harvest grapes was cut off for three days.”
Once workers were allowed back among the vines, however, Lake County transportation logistics became complicated, as Highway 29 leading south to Napa – where many of the grapes picked in Lake County are vinified – was temporarily closed due to the fire.
Growers had to arrange alternate travel routes, heading north on 29 to 20 and then west to U.S. Route 101 or east to I-5.
Dereniuk, who with her husband grow Merlot and Petit Sirah near Kelseyville, is grateful for the effort put in by the firefighters and other emergency personnel.
“We’re so thankful to them for working so tirelessly to keep us safe,” she said.
With winter approaching, the next step for those in the wine business is what’s next. Forecast of an especially potent El Niño could mean rain for the parched western states, but it could also mean mudslides and other complications from baked soils not ready to absorb abundant moisture.
The legacy of the fires is still unsettled, as well. Remaining ash could infiltrate water sources and prevent problems for irrigating vines in future years.