At the height of the Kincade fire on Sunday, October 27, the biggest fire Sonoma County has ever had, I received a lifeline. It was an email from Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines, a young winemaker I’ve known for years. Bilbro grew up in and around Geyserville and Healdsburg, where his dad Chris founded Marietta Cellars in 1978.
His middle brother, Scot Bilbro, runs it now. His oldest brother, Jake, runs Limerick Lane Wines and lives on the property, which is situated on the eastern side of Highway 101 between Healdsburg and Windsor, exactly where the heat of the fire was bearing down. Of all the wine industry families I know, they looked to be deep in trouble, with young kids and families to worry about on top of their businesses.
But here was Sam, reaching out.
“While this is a massive fire, ‘wine country’ is not, in fact, on fire,” wrote Sam. “To be specific, 6.9% of Sonoma County’s acreage has burned this go around. That’s a staggering number, but it is a hell of a lot less than the image people are being led to believe. … Most of wine country is beautiful and alive.”
It’s true. The power outages set in motion by Pacific Gas and Electric impacted people much more than the actual fires in Sonoma County and many places felt no impact at all. With the power back on and the fire 80% contained as of Monday, November 4, even much of the skies are clear.
While the 77,758 acres of vegetation that did burn threatened sizable population areas such as Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa, the greatest fire fighting force ever assembled in these parts (5,245 firefighters at one point) kept the blaze to largely unoccupied areas of vast wilderness. Still, Cal Fire reports 374 structures were destroyed and 60 more damaged.
“The vast majority of the burn area was contained to the rugged wooded hills between Sonoma and Lake County and the eastern edges of the Alexander Valley and Knights Valley. The largest percentage of acreage that burnt was wilderness. So please don’t be a stranger,” wrote Joe Bartolomei, owner of Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Healdsburg, on Facebook. Farmhouse was able to reopen on Saturday.
Noah Dorrance of Reeve Wines in Dry Creek Valley is also trying to take a proactive approach to letting people know that all is well in most of Sonoma County and that his tasting room and rental villa are completely fine, as are his wines.
“I’d say 99.9% of anything a tourist would have done here last week is fine this week,” he says. “Learning from past experience, we are being more proactive with our customers about the fires and that we’re open. All of our grapes were in and harvested, there’s no effect on wine quality at all, the smoke [in Dry Creek] is almost nonexistent.”
Two wineries received significant damage on October 23, the first night of the fire, northeast of Geyserville along Highway 128 in Alexander Valley: Soda Rock Winery and Spire Collection at Field Stone Vineyard, built in 1976. Others reported some damage. But out of a total of more than 425 wineries in Sonoma County, nearly all were spared, including Limerick Lane, where, as Bilbro told me, “the vineyards were the magic buffer they seem to often be.”
Limerick Lane is planning to reopen within the week.
Vineyards remain excellent buffers against fire, but it’s also impressive how winemakers know what to do in the cellar with wine that is already fermenting, given the Tubbs fire of 2017 and the Camp fire of 2018.
At Jordan Winery in the Alexander Valley, where the fire skirted along the southeast corner of the ranch, winemaker Maggie Kruse went to the winery very early after the Kincade fire hit to check on fermentations, close vents and keep any smoke away from active fermentations, of which she had only two still going.
Though vineyards only represent 6% of the total land use (49% is forest, 36% pasture and 9% urban), Sonoma County is no doubt an agricultural community, with about 60,000 acres of wine grapes planted and 1,800 grape growers, 85% of them family owned and operated. A good 80% of these farmers tend to 100 acres or less, and for every acre of grapes, there are two acres of diversified crops like apples, hay and dairy. These farmers know more about dealing with Mother Nature than most.
And many in the wine industry have been taking the lead with climate issues. This includes Jackson Family Wines, based in Santa Rosa, which has partnered with Familia Torres in Spain to create, International Wineries for Climate Change, a working group to reduce carbon emissions across the wine industry.
The Sonoma County Winegrowers have also been a force of good with a goal to become the first 100% sustainable wine region by the end of 2019. It is right now 99% of the way there and the first participant in a worldwide Climate Adaptation Certification program for vineyards.
The fires this week are a good reminder that we will never master nature. But we are better prepared as a community, as businesses, as families living and working here.