Wineries and Vineyards Assess Damage from Southern California Wildfires

Multiple blazes come very close to vineyards across Southern California.
Firefighters use drip torches to set a backfire at night on in an effort to make progress against the Thomas Fire before the winds return with the daylight near Lake Casitas on December 9, 2017 near Ojai, California. Strong Santa Ana winds have been feeding major wildfires all week, destroying hundreds of houses and forcing tens of thousands of people to stay away from their homes. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

As nearly 8,000 firefighters continue to battle the Thomas Fire, a 10-day-old inferno that has consumed more than 242,500 acres, most of the other wildfires are dying down, giving vintners a chance to visit their properties and assess the damages.

The Skirball Fire that burned the hills around a major highway, the 405 freeway, and the community of Bel Air began with an illegal cooking fire, firefighters said. It was the Skirball that burned right up to and slightly into the Moraga Vineyards, the 16-acre estate owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. His winemaker, Sonoma-based Scott Rich, who was driven from his home by October’s wildfires, thanked the firefighters and first responders for saving most of the structures—including the winery and residence—on Murdoch’s property.

“Most importantly, no one at the vineyard was hurt,” said Rich. “We did lose some wine, and there was minor damage to the vines, but we don’t know the full extent just yet. In my experience, vineyards can act as a firebreak, so that may have helped us.

“Harvest was completed in October, so there will be no smoke issues with the grapevines,” Rich said. “Our ability to produce wine has not been affected at all, and we are very much open for business,” said Rich.

Further south in San Diego County, the Lilac Fire scorched 4,100 acres and came close to the Bonsall property owned by 2Plank Vineyards. Winemaker Mike Szymczak had feared 2 Plank’s Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard was lost. But once his vineyard manager reached the property Monday, he found “…our Bonsall vineyard did not burn! Only the bottom two rows were hit, and the rest of the vineyard is fine, for now.”

The Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties menaced many vineyards including Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non property in Oak View, Boccali Vineyards, Casa Barranca and The Ojai Vineyard. Boccali saw some vineyard damage. The Ojai Vineyard founder Adam Tolmach is hosting a benefit Saturday at his tasting room in downtown Ojai, and matching up to $10,000 in donations.

At Topa Mountain Winery in Upper Ojai, close to where the fire began, “The area is quite devastated, and many have lost their homes,” winemaker Dominic O’Reilly said. “Our property was hit hard by the fire, but the two winery buildings are OK. Some of the vineyards burned, and we lost a few tanks and equipment.“ He and his wife had started a commercial, hard-cider operation that was a total loss.

“It really looks like a war zone up here,” O’Reilly said. They are hoping to rebuild through crowdfunding.

Closer to the Santa Barbara County line, a ridgetop property that houses Rincon Mountain Winery and Smoke Mountain Brewery bore a direct hit. “The fire made its way through our property, but thankfully our structures (and more importantly the winery/brewery) are saved,” said Jill Siple. “We’ve been up here on the mountain pretty much the whole time since my husband is in charge of all the water systems up here. It’s been a pretty crazy experience, that’s for sure.”

Another vineyard—this one with an ocean view—also escaped the Thomas Fire. “So far Paredon is safe,” said owner and vintner Ryan Carr, “but it was very close.”

The Thomas Fire, which has destroyed 972 structures, damaged 221 others, and continues to threaten 18,000 more, was in the mountains above Montecito and moving toward Santa Barbara, early Friday morning. Firefighters said they had contained 30 percent of the blaze.

Published on December 14, 2017
Topics: Latest News
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.


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