It’s still too soon to know if the wildfires that scorched the California wine country at the beginning of the week devastated one of the most famous and most important wine regions in the world.
But it’s not too soon to know about the horror and misery that the fires have caused.
“I was in my darkroom, processing pictures, and I smelled smoke,” said George Rose, a former wine marketing executive and newspaper photographer who was in Sonoma County on Sunday night doing freelance work. “I went outside to look, and the entire Myacamas ridge line on the horizon was aglow. The hair was standing up on the back of my head. I’ve covered a lot of fires, and I was scared.”
The official numbers through Wednesday morning California time: 17 dead, 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed, more than 20,000 people evacuated, and some 100,000 acres (40,468 ha) burned in wine country.
Meanwhile, local media reported that at least two dozen wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties had been damaged or destroyed; Frey Vineyards, perhaps the leading organic producer in the US, was gone. In addition, the tourist hub of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County had suffered extensive damage, with entire neighborhoods burned out and the main highway in and out closed in both directions.
“We're safe and still home, though surrounded by fires,” said Robert Larsen, a wine marketing consultant who lives a mile north of downtown Santa Rosa. He reported that fires were burning just a couple of miles from his home to the north and east. “We’re keeping an eye out for embers and looters,” said Larsen. “Packed and ready to get out in a moment’s notice. It's extremely smoky and the destruction is very widespread. Our neighbors are taking shifts walking, eyeful of anything out of the norm. Walks occur every hour by a different person. We all could use a nap. Each of us know several people who have lost their homes.”
At the height of the fires on Monday and Tuesday, cell phone and Internet service was spotty, while thick smoke blanketed the area and turned the sky a greyish orange. It was so bad by Tuesday afternoon that parents kept their children indoors. Rose said his car was covered with ash and soot, and that the air was so thick that breathing was difficult. San Francisco radio reporter Jon Peter Shuler said it was if the region, just an hour’s drive from the city, had been cut off.
“It’s all too close for comfort,” said Linda Murphy, the co-author of American Wine, who lives in Healdsburg in Sonoma County. “And my cats are freaked. The closest fire is six miles away, for now. But the car is packed, just in case. I have so many friends in the path of the flames and I am worried for them.”
The only good news: That 2017 harvest was 90% complete, and there doesn’t seem to be extensive vineyard damage. Officials said it was too soon to know how the fire may have affected current production, including wine undergoing fermentation and aging. Smoke taint was just one of the many potential problems.
Although it’s too early to assess the damage, media reports that a number of wineries and vineyards have been affected: Frey Vineyards Winery and Oster Wine Cellars, Mendocino County; Signorello Estate and White Rock Vineyards Napa County; and Paradise Ridge vineyard in Sonoma.