The devastating wildfires ravaging Northern California’s Lake County have prompted Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for Lake and Napa counties.
Thus far, the Valley Fire has burned an estimated 67,000 acres in and around the towns of Cobb and Middletown, located about 30 minutes north of Calistoga. State officials report that hundreds of structures have also been destroyed, while 23,000 area residents have been evacuated.
Pope Valley—a dry, remote, eastern section of the Napa Valley—has also been under threat, as is the more populated appellation of Howell Mountain. While initial reports have claimed Howell Mountain was evacuated, that has not yet been put into effect.
“Howell hasn’t been cleared, but it’s on alert,” says Kirk Venge, winemaker for Venge Vineyards, located in the foothills of Howell Mountain.
“The fire is about 20 miles away, but if the wind were to shift, there is no way of controlling it, just not enough resources to contain. My poor hospitality manager lost his house. A lot of scheduled picks in Lake are canceled I’ve heard. No one can get in or out,” he says.
Many of Napa Valley’s workers live in Lake County and will fully feel the devastation when they’re allowed to return to the area to assess the damage.
According to the Lake County Winegrape Commission, the owners of Shed Horn Cellars have lost their home and winery to the fire, but they are reporting that their tasting room still stands, as does inventory of their wine.
“While we don’t yet know the extent of vineyard and winery damage for some local grape growers the main impact has been the closure of Highway 29 in the midst of harvest 2015, which has made it challenging both for harvest workers to get to the vineyards to pick the fruit and for trucks to haul the fruit to the winery,” said Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.
Tracey Hawkins of Hawk and Horse Vineyards in Lower Lake, has returned to her ranch and been blessed to find it still standing.
“We were evacuated from both our ranch/vineyard estate in Lower Lake and our home in Angwin,” she said. “Yesterday we were able to access our vineyard. The scene is striking. Vineyards have survived! Although there may be some damage we remain in business and plan to harvest our last five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon next week. What I am seeing is devastation and great resilience. All around our vineyard is black. And yet our vineyard stands, green and jovial, as if in defiance of all that darkness.”
Inland and to the north of Napa and Sonoma counties, where the Mayacamas Mountains and Vaca Range join, Lake County’s 8,380 acres of vineyards ring one of the oldest lakes in North America, Clear Lake. It’s largely around this geological wonder that 140-some growers have made their living selling affordable grapes to their famous neighbors in Napa and Sonoma.
In recent years the buzz has revolved around the Red Hills-Lake County sub-appellation. High in elevation and rich in red volcanic soils, the district is becoming known for high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lake County is quiet and sprawled out, with about 28 wineries across a vast wilderness. Napa Valley grape grower Andy Beckstoffer farms hundreds of acres here; Gallo got just about a thousand planted acres in Red Hills-Lake County in 2012 when it bought Snows Lake Vineyard.
Bill Foley of Foley Family Wines bought the historic Langtry Estate Winery in Middletown a few years ago. It has apparently been spared from the bulk of the fire damage, but is assessing the smoke’s impact on the grapes still on the vine.
“It’s likely we won’t be able to harvest the remaining grapes due to smoke damage, but our winemaker is doing some lab work to confirm,” reported Andrea Smalling, the winery’s chief marketing officer. “The good news is that it appears the actual damage to the vineyards may not be as bad as we initially thought.”
One of the homes on the property was lost, but the historic Lillie Langtry home was saved, and all employees are safe and accounted for.
The entire area is hoping that the rain in the forecast for Wednesday is a deluge.