California fires take a deep toll on wine country

By Eric Asimov

The 2020 vintage was already difficult in Napa Valley. It was born in a drought, matured through terrible heat spikes and had endured smoky conditions from the haze of numerous Northern California fires.

Then, on the last weekend of September — in the middle of harvest — savage wildfires seemed to attack the northern end of the valley from all directions.

The Glass Fire started in the early morning of Sept. 27 in Deer Park, east of St. Helena, near the Silverado Trail, the north-south artery of the eastern valley. It swept east, destroying the winery and barrel warehouse at Burgess Cellars and leveling the turreted stone building at Chateau Boswell. It engulfed the three-Michelin-star restaurant at the Meadowood luxury resort and licked the edges of vineyards at Viader and Failla.

It had begun climbing the hills on the east side of the valley when the wind shifted, blowing the fire back west.

In the Spring Mountain District on the west side of the valley, windblown embers from the Glass Fire ignited another blaze, while a fire in Sonoma County to the west swept in over the hills, consuming the winery at Cain Vineyard and Winery, along with three houses and all the wine in the 2019 and 2020 vintages.

Newton was gravely damaged, losing its signature pagoda building, which had just been completely rebuilt, its terraced estate vineyard and a lot of wine. A large warehouse and winery area at Castello di Amorosa were destroyed, and at least 10,000 cases of wine were ruined.

Numerous other wineries, including Hourglass, Merus, Behrens Family, Fairwinds Estate, Paloma Vineyard, Tuck Beckstoffer Estate, Spring Mountain Vineyard and Sterling Vineyards, were all assessing the damage in a volatile situation. Late last week, the situation seemed dire, with bleak forecasts for hot, dry and windy weather.

But after several days of touch and go, on Monday morning the fires seemed less immediately threatening as the winds shifted, said Frank Dotzler, the general manager at Outpost Wines, on Howell Mountain.

Despite the devastation to structures and property, nobody appears to have been hurt. Beyond Newton, the damage to vineyards, the most important part of the wine industry, appears to have been minimal, limited mainly to scorching around the edges.

To lose a vintage, much less a vineyard, is devastating.

“It was such an uphill battle, but we made it,” said Jean-Baptiste Rivail, Newton’s general manager, speaking of the arduous 2020 vintage.

While the entire crop had not been picked, much of the wine had been fermented and put into vats and barrels at Newton’s newly constructed winemaking facility.

“Everything is gone,” Rivail said. “It’s all gone.”

When Rivail and his team, who had been evacuated, were finally able to return to Newton to inspect the site, they were greeted by streams of wine flowing downhill.

“Every drop of wine was like a miracle this year, the viticulture was so hard,” he said. “It’s almost like losing a living thing. And it’s violent, to go back on site to find ashes and gutters full of wine.”

Christopher Howell, the general manager and wine grower at Cain, not only lost the winery and the ’19 and ’20 vintages, but he and his wife, Katie Lazar, also lost their house.

“It’s not a good part of nature, but it is part of nature,” he said. “Nobody said nature is benign.”

For the first time since 1978, Chateau Montelena, a historic producer near Calistoga, will not make an estate cabernet sauvignon because the grapes were tainted by ash and smoke.

At Kamen Estate, across the Mayacamas Mountains in neighboring Sonoma County, the proprietor, Robert Mark Kamen, has concluded that he will most likely not make any red wines in 2020 because of smoke taint, which can make a wine taste disagreeably smoky, or worse, like ashes.

“To say I’m bummed is an understatement,” he said. He has already sold off some wine that might eventually have fetched $100 a bottle for $5 a gallon, to huge producers who will use it as a minuscule, undetectable part in the vast tanks of wine they will bottle and sell cheaply.

For Kamen, a screenwriter with movies like the “Taken” series, the “Transporter” series and “The Karate Kid” on his résumé, the last month or so, with the intense heat and the smoke, has been surreal. Almost all the grapes were picked by Oct. 1, when in an ordinary year the harvest would have just begun.

“Every day has looked like a Chinese watercolor, muted and gray,” he said. “The heat combined with the particulate matter in the air made it hotter, and the grapes started freaking out.”