Woolsey Fire Devastates Malibu AVA

Vintners are still sifting through the ashes to assess damage, but many vineyards and estates are lost.
Smoke over Malibu City Hall and Pepperdine / Photo by Dan Fredman
Smoke over Malibu City Hall and Pepperdine / Photo by Dan Fredman

The nearly 100,000-acre Woolsey Fire, a fast-moving blaze already responsible for at least three deaths and massive property damage, scorched Malibu’s emerging wine industry as well.

“We have been in contact with at least half of them, and we’ve learned there’s been extensive damage to virtually all of the vineyards and wineries throughout the AVA,” says Greg Barnett, president of the Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Association.

The MCVGGA represents about 40 members and 200 acres of vineyards across the 45,000 acres that make up the Malibu Coast appellation.

The inferno, which started near Simi Valley on November 8, has consumed more than 480 structures. By mid-day Wednesday, Cal Fire reported the Woolsey fire was 47% contained.

Firefighters in Malibu battle the the Woolsey blaze that has has burned nearly 100,000 acres to date / Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Getty Images
Firefighters in Malibu battle the the Woolsey blaze that has has burned nearly 100,000 acres to date / Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Getty Images

Many of Malibu’s pioneering vintners, like Jim Palmer of Malibu Vineyards and John Freeman of Colcanyon Estate Wines, reportedly lost everything. The Semler family, which runs the Malibu Wine Safaris experience, also suffered catastrophic property destruction, but managed to save the safari’s animals, including beloved local celebrity Stanley the Giraffe.

“I’m speechless,” says Palmer, who lived and grew grapes up Decker Canyon, where at least 15 homes burned. “A friend who’s a fireman sent me a picture of what’s left of my house and vineyard, and everything’s just ash, totally leveled.“

Other vintners, like Richard Hirsh of Cielo Farms, believe that the grapevines helped protect their structures. “It’s a miracle that our house and barn are fine,” he said in an email. “Ninety percent of the homes up here are gone. The vineyards saved us up here, I think. A disaster.”

Hirsh estimates he will have to replant 2,000 to 4,000 vines, which is about 25% of his vineyard. “All the stakes burned down, the posts are gone, the netting virtually evaporated, and the irrigation hoses melted away,” he says.“Even with the significant damage we sustained, we feel like we were spared and we’re going to replant and rebuild.”

John Gooden of Montage Vineyards, the former president of the MCVGGA, fought the fire himself with picks and shovels after the water was shut off. “I stayed and saved my home and vineyard,” he says. “Lots of devastation up here looks like a moonscape.”

Published on November 14, 2018
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.

Email: mkettmann@wineenthusiast.net.



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