First drought, now fires threaten California wine

Last Updated Sep 15, 2015 5:22 PM EDT

Wildfires raging in California threaten some of the state's largest wine-producing regions, further jeopardizing a multibillion-dollar business already hit by drought.

By Tuesday, a large blaze had burned 67,000 acres, mostly in Lake County, but also in Napa and Sonoma counties -- the heart of California wine country 90 miles north of San Francisco. The blazes come at the peak of harvest season, which is between a third to 50 percent finished.

The fire -- 15 percent contained and covering 100 square miles -- had destroyed about 585 homes and hundreds of other structures, according to Daniel Berlant, information officer at the California Department of Foresty and Fire Protection. It appeared headed to rank among the "top five of the most destructive wildfires in California's history," Berlant said.

The flames destroyed a winery in Middletown in Lake County along with a building on Langtry Estate, which produces wines under the Langtry and Guenoc labels.

"We do have inventory in the warehouse to keep our orders filled and our tasting room stocked," Michael and Adawn Woods told the Lake County Wine Industry. The Woods lost their home and winery -- Shed Horn Cellers -- which produces about 3,000 cases annually.

Jacque Lynn Johnson, district director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's California Farm Service Agency, said the service had talked to a few area growers about the wildfire in Lake and Napa counties, but it's too soon to say what kind of damage it will have on the 2015 wine crop. Last year's crop generated more than $24 billion in sales.

"We don't know how many acres have been burned, nor do we know if there has been smoke penetration to the remaining fruit, affecting its quality," Johnson said in an email. "Right now, due to evacuation orders, many growers have not been able to visit their ranches to assess what, if any, damage has occurred."

Pollution from the blazes is likely affecting the air quality as well as the sunlight that vines use for photosynthesis, and it could seep into the grapes and affect their taste.

"It's likely that we won't be able to harvest the remaining grapes due to smoke damage, but our winemaker is doing some lab work to confirm, said Andrea Smalling, chief marketing officer of Foley Family Wines at Langtry Estate Winery in Middletown, in a statement issued by the Lake County Wine Industry. "It appears that the actual damage to the vineyards may not be as bad as we initially thought -- there are areas of green once you get past the most outer vines."

"I'm 50 miles away from the fires, and the ash and smoke is affecting the air quality," Nat DiBuduo, president of the Allied Grape Growers, said of conditions in Fresno, where he lives. "The big fear is smoke taint, where the grapes may be absorbing the smoke flavors in the bunches. Here in the Central Valley we don't see a problem -- on the North Coast it was not a problem until last week. The latest fire in Lake County, or Middletown, is devastating not only to the city and homeowners, but some fear the smoke may lay into the vineyards."

The smoke billowing near vineyards poses particular trouble for red grapes, whose skin is used in making wine. The experience of Australia and its bout with large wildfires in 2003 near Canberra does not bode well for California's wine industry, which according to the Wine Institute produces roughly 90 percent of American wine.

"Wines made from grapes exposed to smoke during sensitive growth stages can exhibit aromas and flavors resembling smoked meat, disinfectant, leather, salami and ashtrays," Australia's Department of Agriculture and Food said in a report issued in November.

Yet the fires that continue to burn are perhaps less serious for the wine industry than the state's four-year drought, the most dire in California's 120 years of record-keeping.

"The drought is affecting the overall production, which is equal to or less than last year's," DiBuduo said. "It appears the crop is lighter than anticipated," he added regarding the 4 million ton estimate provided last month by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The figure is more likely under 3.8 million tons, DiBuduo said.

A paper published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change did little to bolster hopes that the drought will end. It offered a bleak view on a central source of fresh water for the drought-riddled state. Using data involving tree rings from centuries-old blue oaks, the study found snow cover in the Sierra Nevada was at a 500-year low last winter.

Snow from the mountain range supplies a third of California's drinking water, along with water to battle wildfires and produce energy.

And for the first time in 75 years of early April measurements, the California Department of Water Resources on April 1 found "no snow whatsoever" during its manual survey at 6,800 feet in the mountain range. The agency called the reading "historically significant," given the snowpack traditionally is at its peak by early April before it begins to melt.