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September 06, 2018

Northern California Wildfires

fire.

The horrifying and tragic deadly wildfires that have been burning through California’s wine country; Napa and Sonoma Valleys, have sadly resulted in many people losing their homes and a disastrous loss of life. In the wake of the fires there has also been destruction of vineyards and some of the most coveted real estate on the West Coast. Numerous historic wineries are sadly threatened if not already destroyed, with most damage in the Atlas Peak-Stag’s Leap area near Yountville, in Sonoma County between Kenwood and Santa Rosa, and in the mountains north and west of Calistoga. Among the wineries known to have been most severely affected are Signorello in Napa and Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, whose wineries have been razed to the ground. Darioush, Chimney Rock, Shafer, Pine Ridge and Silverado were also within the path of the Atlas Peak fire.

This week we have been sending our sympathies to our partners in California and have received first hand reports which we share today. It is important to explain how this catastrophe occurred. The backstory is that California has seen five years of drought conditions. California relies on snow melt for irrigation, but global warming has reduced this, worsening the drought. However, this abated last October when spring experienced heavy rain, resulting in the reservoirs being filled, leaving them at excellent levels. This was followed by a very dry summer, with little rain and an early harvest. However, the torrential rains last October created more undergrowth than normal, with the ground-cover growing quickly. This undergrowth which dried under a long hot summer became straw-like. Forest fires are normal in California and typically easy to control, however on the 8th of October winds gusted up to 70 mph, which in combination with the tinder-like undergrowth meant the fires spread at an apocalyptic rate, moving at 90 metres every couple of minutes.

We spoke to Don Weaver from Harlan on Friday last week, who reported he felt that if a northerly wind (as forecast) began to blow there was a very real threat to Harlan and surrounding properties. As of last Friday, he stated that 95% of the harvest has been completed and their thoughts were on the 2015 vintage which is being stored in their sheds. However, he reasserted that the valley floor was largely untouched, that it was the properties up in the hills of Oakville like Harlan that had seen fires around them. Our contacts at Hundred Acre said they watched Boeing 747s dumping fire retardant and others water every 10 minutes, but can report they have not experienced damage. It now appears that Napa Valley vineyards seems to have escaped relatively unscathed, the fires were isolated and the majority of damage was caused in the mountainous forests above the valley. Hotspots remained in Rutherford and St Helena, although fortunately the fire largely seems to be contained now and residents are heading back to their homes and businesses to check damage. The most devastation was seen in Santa Rosa which borders Sonoma and current estimates suggest that over 2,000 homes were completely destroyed and at least 42 people have died including 23 in Sonoma County.

We spoke to Joe Donelan of Donelan Family Wines, who has received several perfect scores from Robert Parker and is a leading light in Santa Rosa. He explained that Santa Rosa was engulfed and sadly that his world-class vineyard Obsidian will likely need ripping up and replanting. The fires ran through the vineyard, flying toward Santa Rosa, scorching the neighbourhood. The city lost power on Sunday night and the entire area was evacuated on Monday. In response, over 11,000 firefighters, army, police and civilians were fighting the fires.

We are currently talking to proprietors and winemakers and assessing information on how the fires might affect the 2017 harvest and the wine industry specifically. The reports suggest that 90-95% of all wineries had picked before the fires started, so the grapes are intact for the 2017 vintage. As such, unless stores of back vintages were destroyed, consumers do not need to assume an automatic rise in wine prices next year, but instead, there will be large disruption to 2017 and a large reduction in production. In the aforementioned regions, varying degrees of damage can be expected, from 2018 onwards, in many cases this could mean replanting and several years of recovery. From a commercial perspective, we can be sure to see price increases over the coming years in anticipation of future lost vintages.

This is a terrible time for people living and working in California and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and businesses affected, but the people of California are industrious and hardy and will come out the other side of this stronger.