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Napa Valley Family Wineries Enter Peak Tourist Season Beset by Fire Damage, Pandemic

ST. HELENA (CNN) -- The sight is every winemaker's nightmare.

"Smoke-tainted" grapes, blackened casks of wine, charred and broken bottles where once there were picturesque vineyards.

In California's celebrated Napa Valley, instead of welcoming visitors to their wineries for the autumn harvest season, winemakers this year are looking at decimated vineyards. Massive wind-driven wildfires have damaged and destroyed dozens of the region's famed wineries, many of them family-owned businesses.

And the coronavirus pandemic hasn't helped either.

Coupled with the wildfires, high temperatures and weeks of smoky skies, there have been very few visitors to the area this year, several winemakers tell CNN.

The California wildfires have devastated more than four million acres, of which the Glass Fire has scorched more than 67,000 acres, damaging and destroying structures at approximately 30 wineries in Northern California.

Symbol of Rebuilding

But despite major losses, some Napa Valley winemakers say they hope to attract visitors soon to uphold the region's reputation for making some of the world's finest wines.

Fairwinds Estate Winery is one of them. The historic property known for being the fourth winery established in Napa Valley shortly after prohibition, has been nearly destroyed by the Glass Fire.

Over 40,000 square-feet of production facilities and a tasting room were completely gutted. Hundreds of bottles of wine were cracked in the heat of the flames, and tanks of unused wine have been damaged beyond repair, said Brandon Chaney, proprietor and CEO of Fairwinds Estate Winery.

A four-man firefighting crew with the Fremont Fire Department tried to salvage as much as they could. But after a hydrant lost pressure and their pumping systems burned, the firefighters were forced to evacuate. They did, however, manage to save an American flag flying on a pole high above the flames engulfing the property.

"The firefighters felt like they were responsible they couldn't save the winery, but I was so moved they have the pride in their country to save our American flag and give it back to us so we can put it up again as a symbol of rebuilding," Chaney said.

Ruining small wineries

Other winemakers in Napa Valley are facing the same devastation.

The neighboring Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga said it lost an 11,000 square-foot building and nearly 10,000 cases of wine -- that's about 120,000 full wine bottles -- in the Glass Fire.

Dario Sattui, the owner of the property, said the destruction from the fires will not stop them from reopening their "castle-like" tasting room.

"It's a really difficult situation for us because we sell about 95% of our wine direct to the consumer who comes to the winery," Sattui said. "So, when we don't have visitation, we don't have sales."

Sattui said Napa Valley winemakers have encountered constant hurdles with wildfires since 2018 that have been a "disaster" for smaller family-owned wineries that do not rely heavily on online sales.

Fighting the fires have also been a "family effort" for many, said David Tate, general manager of Barnett Vineyards, a Napa winery with vines over 30 years old.

Tate said the family's son-in-law, an assistant and himself pumped water from the pool on the property to douse the flames from the wildfires.

"We had large water pumps and 500 feet of fire hose with a nozzle at the end," Tate said. "The rest of the family had chainsaws going like crazy to try to cut back the brush that was wrapped around the house."

Hope for the future

Barnett Vineyards plan to reopen their tasting room as soon as the county clears the roads nearby. They say they were lucky to lose only a few small structures to the wildfire, including a shed storing winery equipment inside.

"As soon as we can, we're going to open our doors and start welcoming people up here almost with like neon signs," Tate said. "A lot of us are still standing and can't wait to have visitors." He added that's the best way now to support the Napa community.

Of the approximately 475 wineries in Napa County, 95% are family-owned, according to the non-profit Napa Valley Vintners.

The Glass Fire burning in Napa and Sonoma counties is 78% contained, but it's expected to be fully extinguished by the end of October, Cal Fire officials said.

"Everyone is really rallying around rebuilding soon, so that's the plan," Chaney said.

As firefighters gain the upper hand on the blaze, many evacuation orders have been reduced to warnings.

This has been a historic wildfire season for California. Five of the top 20 largest wildfires in the state's history have occurred this year. More than 16,500 firefighters are currently battling 23 major wildfires. The state has reported over 8,2000 wildfires since the beginning of the year. And 31 people have been killed and over 8,454 structures destroyed statewide in the fires.

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