From British Columbia to California, Wary Industry Watching Flames

West Coast wildfires burned across seven states and British Columbia this summer, destroying and threatening vineyards and wineries, and disrupting winery operations.

As of Sept. 13, according to National Interagency Fire Center data, 34 active and uncontained wildfires burned on roughly 1.6 million acres in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Currently, Washington state is reporting the most fires – 13 – and none of them fully contained. California reports eight fires. Eleven fires are active in the Kamloops Fire Centre region, according to the British Columbia Wildfire Service.

At least two wineries have been destroyed to date. On Sept. 13, Shed Horn Cellars, in California’s Lake County, fell victim to the Valley Fire – which spread across Lake, Napa, and Sonoma counties to consume 70,000 acres. (The fire was 30% contained at press time). Ventimiglia Cellars, a boutique winery in Chelan, Wash., was reduced to ash on Aug. 14 from the fast-moving Chelan Complex fire.

Shed Horn Cellars’ owners lost the winery as well as their home, but the tasting room in Middletown remains unaffected and they have sufficient inventory to both fill orders and stock their tasting room, according to Terry Dereniuk, executive director of the Lake County Winery Association.

The Valley Fire also damaged Langtry Estate & Vineyard and caused some Lake County growers to suspend harvest operations. Damage at Langtry, which included a home on the property and a portion of its vineyard, was “not as bad as they had thought” and is “back up and running” Dereniuk said. The historic Lillie Langtry house and all the winery employees are safe, she said.

Vineyards in evacuation areas have had to stop harvest operations. However, the Lake County Winegrape Commission is working with local officials to try to get small crews into areas under evacuation that are not directly involved in the fire.

Fire losses are not deterring Ventimiglia Cellars from continuing operations, according to Susan Trimpe, director of Cascade Valley Wine Country in Washington. “Word on the street is that they are still picking and crushing.” Ventimiglia said he will rebuild with the help of neighboring facilities, which have donated extra barrels and equipment.

So far, the fire has steered clear of Napa Valley wineries and vineyards. “It’s a terrible tragedy that’s occurred in Lake County. Our hearts go out to them,” said Patsy McGaughy, communications director for the Napa Valley Vintners. The association has not received any reports of properties threatened or damaged by fire.

Even so, McGaughy said, the Napa wine community is gearing up to help its employees, many of whom live in Lake County.

Fires elsewhere have also threatened winery operations. August wildfires in British Columbia’s Okanagan area – notably the Testalinden fire – threatened the Rustico Farm and Cellars and Church & State wineries near the city of Oliver. Bruce Fuller of Rustico Winery posted a message on social media. “Close call at Rustico. Fire took out our mountainside right to vineyard. So far our log home and winery spared.” Flames came to within 50 feet of Church & State’s production facilities. Tinhorn Winery had to contend with the Testalinden fire as well as ongoing controlled burns nearby.

Meanwhile, in the Columbia River Gorge, winds were fanning flames toward the Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Wash.

Open for Business

While life and limb are most important in these situations, the potential economic damage already occurring from diminished tourism related to the fires is a concern. The public appears to be staying away from areas near, but unaffected by fires, including the Napa Valley and Washington’s Cascade Valley.

“We need people to come visit. We can’t be hurt any more,” Trimpe said. “The fire is 15 to 20 miles up the lake, but it’s like a ghost town. We’ve had some incredibly gorgeous days during the fire season.” The region has a two-weekend long crush celebration planned the first weeks in October. “We’re waiting for the people to show up and have fun.”

Evacuation orders and road closures are worrying potential Napa Valley visitors, McGaughy said. “It’s time to remind folks that Napa Valley wineries are open for business. We don’t want this to deter people from coming up here.”

Social media enabled visitors’ bureaus and wineries to broadcast and redistribute news of those tasting rooms and wineries still open for business. Photo and video posts showed emergency personnel taking a break outside an open tasting room and winemaking activity at Val du Vino winery in Murphys. Lake County-based Six Sigma Ranch kept the public aware of its operations during the Valley Fire after being previously threatened by both the Rocky and Jerusalem fires in July and August.

California, Washington, and British Columbia winemakers will face a new concern once the fires are out: public perception of whether wines from the 2015 vintage in affected areas have suffered damage from smoke taint.