A Report from the Napa Wildfires

Contributing Editor Jim Gordon recounts his personal experience over the last two days of wildfires ravaging the area.
Burned out wine bottles sit on a rack at the fire damaged Signorello Estate after an out of control wildfire moved through the area on October 9, 2017 in Napa, California. Tens of thousands of acres and hundreds of homes and businesses have burned in widespread wildfires burning in Napa and Sonoma counties. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This report was filed Tuesday, October 10, 2017, on the second full day of the Northern California wildfires.

Just 48 hours ago it was perfect October weather in Napa Valley, with temperatures in the 80s, low humidity and very cool nights. Great conditions for ripening the valley’s signature grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. As the latest-ripening of the popular wine grape varieties, a lot of Cabernet does not get harvested until late October, leaving a lot of grapes on vine left to pick this season.

But the weather got freaky the evening of Sunday, October 8, when unusually high winds coming from a very unusual direction—the northeast—started blowing. I’ve been in Southern California during the Santa Ana winds previously, and it was the same wild feeling in the air, as if the atmosphere was charged with high voltage static electricity. Meterologists had predicted fire danger, as local San Francisco stations on Saturday and Sunday showed Bay Area maps with huge quadrants colored in red, showing potential wildfire risk.

Today, Tuesday, the smoke is thicker in the air than ever, and at least one in 10 people I see are now wearing a breathing mask of some type, even if just a cloth over the mouth.

Driving home from errands in Napa on Sunday afternoon, I saw from a distance a small fire starting up near Napa County Airport, thick white and gray smoke billowing straight up and quickly. That fire was apparently put out by firefighters but it did serve as a warning for what was to come.

The evening was quite warm. We left the bedroom windows wide open for circulation, sleeping well for a few hours.

Then the wind started.

The gale began rattling the screens, blowing leaves and branches around the yard outside, and pummeling the house with strong gusts of 30 to 40 mph. All of a sudden, smoke was everywhere, pouring through the open windows, clinging to my nose and throat and making it difficult to breathe. I’d covered structure fires and wildfires as a newspaper reporter years ago, and this smoke was a blend of the two. Like a campfire put out with water, combined with smoldering trash and something like burnt compost.

This was when the power and cell phone service went out.

Luckily our house has natural gas and water. For the past two days I’ve been shuttling between home in Browns Valley, about three miles west of the Napa city center, to Wi-Fi hotspots downtown like the public library where I’m currently writing this, or the Starbucks at 1st and Main.

Today, Tuesday, the smoke is thicker in the air than ever, and at least one in 10 people I see are now wearing a breathing mask of some type, even if just a cloth over the mouth.

A downed eucalpytus tree jutted out into the highway, blocking one lane.  It was still burning, but someone had chainsawed off a portion to allow one lane of traffic through, and then raced on to other, bigger disasters, I assume.

I drove through Carneros last evening (the region that basically connects the two towns of Napa and Sonoma) to take in the situation with my own eyes. Even though I had been absorbing news on an emergency hand-crank radio, I was still shocked at the true devastation to farms, homes, cars and vineyards.

The historic Stornetta Dairy buildings on highways 12 and 121 were burnt to a crisp, only the metals parts of milking sheds surviving, albeit twisted and laying in heaps. Two cute little homes from maybe the 1930s across the highway that I always assumed were part of the Stornetta property, were completely gone, save their chimneys and foundations.

Flames had licked up right next to the nearby Nicholson Ranch winery and scorched the adjacent pasture that had become a landmark for generations of wine country visitors due to to its beautiful 100-year-old stone wall. I saw live flames climbing a hill behind a Victorian house on the Gundlach Bundschu property along Napa Road just 2 or 3 miles from the Sonoma town square.

How to Help Victims of the Fires in Northern California

There wasn’t much traffic on the roads and little sign of firefighters and police; they had moved on to the actively burning regions. A downed eucalpytus tree jutted out into the highway, blocking one lane.  It was still burning, but someone had chainsawed off a portion to allow one lane of traffic through, and then raced on to other, bigger disasters, I assume.

I’ve always maintained that grapevines shouldn’t be able to catch fire. They’re green, growing plants with no deadwood left on them. However I did see many places where vines had burned, especially around the perimeter of vineyards. These were generally in areas where former grass and brush areas met a vineyard, the fire eventually being stopped by dirt tractor rows and lack of easy, dry tinder among the vines. In many places it looked like the fire raced right up to the edge of the vines and stopped, though those vines may have suffered fatal heat injuries that aren’t readily apparent.

Here in Carneros the vines are mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, whose 2017 crop has already been safely harvested. Farther up-valley in Napa and Sonoma both, there were still at least hundreds if not thousands of acres of Cabernet Sauvignon yet to be harvested.

Only time will tell what lasting effects these fires will have on the California wine industry and, more importantly, the lives of those who call this region home.

Published on October 11, 2017
Topics: Latest News
About the Author
Jim Gordon
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Jim Gordon has been covering the wine industry as an editor and reporter for more than 30 years. In 2006 he became editor of Wines & Vines, the media company for North American winemakers and grape growers. He directs the editorial content of Wines & Vines in the monthly print magazine, digital and social media. Gordon is also a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and past director of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. He was editor in chief for two books by publisher Dorling Kindersley of London: Opus Vino, and 1000 Great Everyday Wines. Gordon was managing editor of Wine Spectator for 12 years, and editor in chief of Wine Country Living magazine for four, during which time he helped create Wine Country Living TV for NBC station KNTV in San Jose. He lives in Napa, California. Email: jgordon@wineenthusiast.net.



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