As communities affected by wildfires continue to assess and recover, one thing is clear: The only way the region will get back on its feet is if the rest of the world doesn’t turn away, say Sonoma and Napa counties vintners and grape growers.
Preliminary estimates by the California Department of Insurance put the damage to insured properties at $1 billion.
“These numbers are just the beginning of the story as one of the deadliest and costliest wildfire catastrophes in California’s history,” said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. “The tragic death of 42 people and over a billion in property losses are numbers—behind these numbers are thousands of people who’ve been traumatized by unfathomable loss. We must do all we can to ease their pain and help them recover and rebuild.”
Of some 1,200 wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, less than 10 have been destroyed or heavily damaged, according to the Sonoma County Vintners.
Vineyards acted as firebreaks
In addition, Sonoma County Vintners report that in most instances vineyards didn’t burn and helped to serve as firebreaks, saving structures and other vineyards.
It has been a “crazy, crazy week, 160 acres of the property burned, but feeling very fortunate that the winery and vines were spared,” Andrew Mariani of Scribe Winery told Wine Enthusiast in an email. “It was blue skies and beautiful in Sonoma today (Saturday), we reopened the Hacienda which feels amazing. Spread the world that it’s safe and beautiful in wine country, everyone should come.”
For vineyards that sustained damage, crop insurance will serve as the way most will recoup, said economist Edward J. O’Boyle of the Mayo Research Institute.
“An adjuster from the private insurance company that signed the contract to provide coverage for the owner of the vineyard comes out to the vineyard to make a written estimate of the extent of the damage. In that regard, wine crop insurance is like auto insurance and flood insurance,” he said.“This terrible fire in the wine country puts at risk three parties,” O’Boyle continues. “The grower, who sustained the damage but bought crop insurance; the insurance company that makes payments for grower losses and may or may not have purchased reinsurance; and the taxpayer through the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation who subsidizes both the grower and the insurer. Any grower who gambled on self-insurance may be in very serious financial trouble.”
Majority of Harvest Completed
According to Wine Institute, the heat in late August and early September allowed the majority of the 2017 harvest, 75 – 90 percent depending on the variety and location, to be completed before the fires. Remaining on the vines were mostly late-ripening red grapes like thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon, considered among the heartiest varieties of all.
Wine Institute also said heat or smoke from the fires didn’t impact fermenting wine or wine that was already bottled. They also said that wine inventories still in storage from previous vintages should be unharmed
Where wineries burned, in many cases wine caves and fermentation rooms remained untouched. Winemakers, for the most part, kept making wine, and that wine will be fine, according to the Wine Institute.
The greatest threat to Northern California’s wine regions will continue to be the displacement of so many people who live and work here. Well-known winemakers to cellar workers, vineyard crews and tasting room employees have all felt the wildfires’ impact.
This issue is the focus of Sonoma County Winegrowers. Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers put out a statement to her membership this week, asking growers to contribute to the broader community. “…For our ag workers, the impact was particularly severe,” she wrote. “Knowing that a home provides a family with stability and comfort, we are committed to getting all of our displaced ag employees into temporary housing as quickly as possible.”
The wine country region also depends heavily on tourism and direct wine sales.
“One of the best ways to support our beautiful, diverse and vast region is to visit the open tasting rooms,” states Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners. “And an even easier option is to continue drinking Sonoma County wines from wherever you are. Together, our wine community will emerge stronger and more connected.”