Breweries in California’s Wine Country Grapple with Wildfires

Glass Fire breweries
Flames from the Glass Fire near Kenwood, Calif. Photo by Chris Tuite / ImageSPACE/ Sipa USA via Alamy

“Here we go again.”

That was the thought racing through Natalie Cilurzo’s mind as she saw the flickering, sickening orange glow on the horizon. She knew another fire was raging in California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, and might soon threaten her two breweries.

Cilurzo is the co-founder and president of Russian River Brewing Co., which operates a production facility in Windsor, Calif. and a brewpub in Santa Rosa. It is one of the more popular and beloved breweries in the country, thanks in part to its open-fermented wild ales and IPA Pliny the Elder.

Last year, smoke from the Kincade Fire damaged the Windsor facility and the flames came “dangerously close” to the brewery’s concrete walls, Cilurzo says. And the 2017 Tubbs Fire came close to destroying the brewpub in Santa Rosa.

Russian River now keeps a megawatt generator at its Windsor production brewery to maintain its essential equipment if power is cut off, and the company regularly holds evacuation drills, including one last week. At this point, all Cilurzo and her colleagues can do is take it “day by day,” she says.

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While not as numerous as wineries, there are several breweries in Napa Valley. Some have a brewpub model and serve housemade food along with their beers, while others are small, modest taprooms where visitors can stop in for a sample and bottles to go.

Already feeling the impact from the novel coronavirus pandemic, these businesses now face additional hardships.

“Who is coming to Napa now,” asks Nile Zacherle, owner and brewer of Mad Fritz Brewing in St. Helena, Calif. “No one is coming to Napa… So many [businesses] were already struggling. Now there is ash floating around and you’re worried that it could ignite something. We’ve already seen a lot lost.”

“When you leave in a hurry you wonder if this is the last time you’ll see your house, your business, because you don’t know what is going to happen.”—Nile Zacherle, owner and brewer, Mad Fritz Brewing

His small brewery is temporarily closed as it sits near the current edge of the Glass Fire. Power was cut to the town on Sunday, and so he has been using a small diesel generator to run a few tanks, which are currently fermenting beer, along with other equipment.

“When you leave in a hurry you wonder if this is the last time you’ll see your house, your business because you don’t know what is going to happen,” he says. After filling the generator, he was on his way to join his family at an evacuation house in Marin, Calif. He plans to make the two-and-a-half-hour roundtrip journey daily to keep the generator active for as long as he’s able to access the building.

“It’s stressful, everyone is tired and hungry and worried. Sometimes you think about popping a cork on a bottle to drink a beer a lot earlier than you should,” he says.

Others are soldiering on, keeping the doors open during the fire to give respite to residents and off-duty first responders.

“We ended up closing for outdoor service here,” says Steve Gonzalez, senior manager of brewing and innovation at Stone Brewing Napa. “That put us in a bit of a bind with the reduced indoor capacity due to COVID restrictions.  But people seemed to be ordering a fair amount of beer.

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“Personally, I found it soothing to drink a cold beer after breathing in smoke on days where the air quality index went above 150. Some of our customers agreed with that assessment! We know how hard this is on our community and thank all the first responders for what they’re doing to keep us safe.”

Still, the fire remains an enormous threat.

The big worry for many breweries whose structures survived the blaze is refrigeration, which is needed to keep beer fermenting and fresh. Power outages can affect this, as can power surges from PG&E, the local utility. The latter has occurred in the past and fried some brewers’ equipment.

Brian Hunt, owner of Moonlight Brewing Co. In Santa Rosa, says ash is being tracked into his brewery by the wheels of forklifts. As winemakers are currently in the middle of harvest, Hunt worries for his neighbors.

“Our work is spread out all year round, and refrigeration is key, but if we lose power, and have to dump a batch, we put the dollars down the drain but can make more,” he says. “For those who contracted grapes that are now all smoke or just shitty, there’s a real worry.”

“We know how hard this is on our community and thank all the first responders for what they’re doing to keep us safe.”—Steve Gonzalez, senior manager, Stone Brewing Napa

In both 2017 and 2019, Russian River released a special beer called Sonoma Pride. Its proceeds benefitted those who lost their homes and businesses in the fires as well as to firefighters and other first responders.

Air quality on Wednesday was looking favorable, so Cilurzo says that both locations plan to reopen for outside service after being closed for two days. Still, that could change at a moment’s notice.

“You have to be ready for it all to change fast,” she says. “That’s just California these days.”

Published on September 30, 2020
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