GLEN ELLEN, CALIFORNIA/SAN FRANCISCO – The flames stopped 2 meters from tanks holding fermenting wine at Sonoma’s Imagery Estate Winery, but the threat to the precious contents persisted.
“There’s a million dollars of wine in these tanks,” said Mark Burningham, who helps manage Imagery. Smoke rose from a smoldering compost pile behind the vats and electricians rushed to hook up a generator so the tanks could be cooled and the wine would not spoil.
“The whole goal here is to save the wine,” said Burningham, one of many vintners who have returned to their land and wineries despite evacuation orders.
California’s finest wine makers are scrambling to save years of labor as historic fires sweep the region. Blazes have destroyed or damaged at least 16 wineries in Napa Valley, with many in neighboring Sonoma Valley unreachable due to the spreading flames, according to trade groups.
Not all wineries are in an evacuation zone and many are scrambling to pick the last grapes as rising winds fan wildfires that have killed at least 21 people across the state.
About 10 percent of the crop has yet to be harvested, and much of it is Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most expensive varietals.
Smoke from the fires threatens to contaminate those grapes and ruin the taste of wine made from them, said Jim Harbertson, an associate professor of wine chemistry at Washington State University. “The flavors range from campfire to cigarette butts and ash,” he said.
Vintners also face the challenge of preserving the quality of what has been picked in months and years past, as power and water outages cripple wine infrastructure.
“It’s unknown how much people are able to go in and stir their wine. That’s a wild card.” Karissa Kruse, head of Sonoma Wine Growers, a trade group. Kruse lost her home in a fire and spoke by phone from a store where she was buying clothes.
She and Napa Valley’s wine trade group emphasized that they have not yet heard from many of their close to 2,000 members.
High-end wines could be reduced to bargain-bin specials without constant coddling by vintners.
“They’re worried about temperature controlling the wine in tanks, pumping over the wines they have in tanks without power, and finding ingenious ways to make generators,” said Anita Oberholster, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis.
California winemakers last year shipped 238 million cases of wine within the United States at an estimated retail value of $34 billion, according to the Wine Institute. U.S. wine exports reached $1.6 billion last year, with 90 percent of that coming from California.
Napa and Sonoma produce much of the state’s most prized and expensive wines. Top-shelf wine insurance could cover vats of fermenting juice but not the damage in lost relationships with customers and suppliers, said Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division, which lends to wine makers.
“A family will typically have two to three years of wine in barrels and tanks,” McMillan said. “So if you lose all of that, you are out of the market for three years. You are out of sight and out of mind.”
Rival wineries in Sonoma and Napa on Wednesday circulated emails offering the loan of trucks, refrigerated fermentation facilities and spare rooms in apartments.
“Everyone is trying to help each other,” said Christine Lilienthal, marketing director at Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in Sonoma.