Napa wineries ask ‘What now?’ as they survey Glass Fire wreckage

Damage is still being assessed, but Napa’s winemakers are facing the reality of an annual wildfire season, and wondering how one of the world’s most famous wine regions can survive intact

Words by Alder Yarrow

Hour Glass Winery after the Fire
Charred vineyards at Viader (photo: Alan Viader)

Saturday, 26 September was the last ordinary day for Napa vintner Jeff Smith. He spent it as he often does, hosting visitors at his winery that nestles into the hills on the east side of Napa Valley.

Smith’s Hourglass Winery, just north of St Helena, features a set of caves carved into the hillside and a unique, outdoor winery, topped by an elegant half-roof cantilevered above the cellar door. Out front, the estate’s Blueline Vineyard surrounds a diminutive farmhouse built in 1858, a relic of Napa’s agrarian past.

After visits to the Napa winery, Smith often hosts dinners for guests at the farmhouse, as he did – albeit with social distancing protocols – on that fateful Saturday night.

“It had gotten pretty late as we cleaned up,” says Smith. “So instead of driving home we decided to spend the night. In retrospect, it was good to have one last night there.”

2020 was already the most challenging of vintages; the timing could not have been worse

Napa Fire and Fire Truck
The Hennessey Fire alone had already burned 363,220 acres in Napa, even before the Glass Fire took hold

At 4:10 the next morning, Smith’s life, like so many lives in Napa Valley, would change forever as the Glass Fire tore down the hillsides of the Vaca Mountains into the heart of upper Napa Valley.

Smith and thousands of others spent the next 72 hours evacuating first to one location and then to another, as firefighters desperately battled fast-moving flames consuming Napa’s wooded hillsides. Those who weren’t evacuating, and even some who were, frantically proceeded with the harvest, already heavily underway.

“The timing could not have been worse,” says Smith, who had the majority of his fruit picked and was most of the way through fermentation when the inferno descended.

Channelled by canyons normally responsible for cool breezes in summer, the fire ripped through the Hourglass property, melting the roof onto equipment and tanks in mid-ferment, filling the cellars with smoke, and roaring across the front of the estate to consume the ancient farmhouse.

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 vintage was already shaping up to be among the most challenging Napa has ever faced. In midsummmer came the Hennessey Fire, which began during a heatwave and electrical storm on 17 August in the hills above Lake Hennessey. That fire would go on to burn 363,220 acres (147,052ha), threatening several wineries and inundating Napa and the greater San Francisco Bay Area with unprecedented amounts of smoke. While few wineries suffered damage in that blaze, smoke taint became a pressing concern for so many that the main laboratory in the state still has a weeks-long backlog of testing requests.

Then, just when Napa was beginning – literally – to breathe a little easier, the Glass Fire turned a merely troublesome vintage tragic.

Broman Cellars Vineyard
Signs in support of local firefighters at Broman Cellars Vineyard

Damage reports are still forthcoming as residents slowly regain access to their properties, but several wineries, including Cain, Newton and Behrens Family on Spring Mountain, and Burgess Cellars on Howell Mountain, suffered complete losses. More than a dozen more, including Hourglass, sustained significant damage.

In the face of annual infernos, discussions of which grapes are best suited to climate change seem sadly impotent. Wildfires have impacted three out of the past four California vintages, with both 2017 and now 2020 dramatically affecting Napa’s harvest, not to mention the region’s tourist economy.

As shocking as it seems, the idea of an annual wildfire season must now be reckoned with. But what are the true implications of regular bouts of fire and smoke, and how often should Napa expect to suffer?

No one knows the true answer to such questions, but everyone living and working in Napa will be grappling with them for some time to come, along with countless insurance claims. But insurance doesn’t prevent hardship, it only lessens the financial blow. Fires may now bring to California what particularly bad hailstorms or autumn rains have long brought to some of France’s wine regions: the prospect of a truly poor vintage.

The idea of an annual wildfire season must now be reckoned with

A number of Napa vintners have already decided to skip this vintage, while many others wait patiently for test results to determine whether their wines are salvageable. The full extent of smoke damage won’t be known for weeks, if not months, but some winemakers are suggesting as little as 30% of Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignon harvest may survive.

In order to have wine to sell, some wineries may now be forced to source fruit elsewhere. California labelling laws require only 85% of a wine’s grapes to have come from the region printed on the bottle. This has led to a tight relationship between Napa and neighbouring Lake County, whose Cabernet harvest has long supplemented Napa’s. Perhaps some Napa producers will now begin producing Lake-County-designated wines.

Lake County has also suffered horrific fires in recent years, however. Producers looking for more Cabernet may need to go as far as Paso Robles or Santa Barbara. The question is whether consumers will be willing to buy such wines, and at what price?

Hourglass winery
Before and after shots at Hourglass's outdoor winery
Hourglass winery after the fires

In theory, the last four years of fires, which have scorched significant portions of Napa and its neighbouring counties, should have burned much of the excess fuel that contributes to wildfire danger. But recent fires are not a true guarantee against future fires. This year’s Glass Fire burned a significant swath of the Mayacamas Mountains that also burned in the 2017 Nuns fire.

Bill Harlan, owner of the luxury resort Meadowood, which lost its restaurant and some 40 per cent of its cabins (Harlan Estate and its sister winery Promontory are undamaged), is convinced that forest management is the key to controlling wildfires. Because the forests are protected, flammable underbrush and younger trees are allowed to grow unchecked, which greatly heightens the risk of fire. “We’ve been thinning the trees so the  buildings can survive. We’ve been doing that for four years and there’s still much to do,” he told Club Oenologique. State and local government, he added, “are starting to recognise that we have to manage our forests”.

Once vintners have insured their properties, built fire breaks and defensible space around their buildings, little more remains in their control. But dealing with the vagaries of nature has long been the farmer’s lot in life – just as supporting each other in the face of disaster seems to be the increasingly frequent fate of Napa Valley residents.

As the ruins of his winery and farmhouse still smoulder, Jeff Smith grapples with uncertainties on a scale he never imagined.

“We don’t know for sure if things are OK,” he says. “Access is tough, thanks to downed trees and power lines, and there’s a ton of smoke in the cave. I don’t want my staff up there breathing that, so we’re still trying to figure it out.” Long term, though, he remains committed. “Napa is a very, very unusual place,” says Smith. “There are few places in the world that can make such world class wines, so leaving doesn’t seem like an option. We’ve had a lot of good years, and now we gotta look adversity straight in the eye and deal with it.”

The Invictus NV fund, which Harlan’s Napa Valley Reserve and Meadowood established to aid victims of the 2017 fire, has been reactivated, and is receiving contributions.  For more details see  www.invictusnv.com