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Industry seeks to reassure consumers as wine country burns

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California wine industry groups say their harvest was 90 percent complete when wildfires in the northern San Francisco Bay area kicked up late Oct. 8. They say they’ll work to secure recovery funds once the extent of damage is known.

SAN FRANCISCO — Amid reports of burned-out wineries and smoke-shrouded vineyards, California wine industry groups are seeking to ease consumer fears as flames consume the iconic Napa and Sonoma county hillsides.

Growers’ associations note that the harvest that was underway when wildfires kicked up late Oct. 8 was 90 percent complete. Smoke from nearby fires would have to cover vineyards for a long time to taint the grapes that are still there, and wineries can take measures to prevent smoke from damaging fermenting grapes, said Gladys Horiuchi, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.

“It seems to be a pretty fluid situation because a lot of people can’t get back into their properties (to assess damage) because of the evacuations,” Horiuchi said on Oct. 10. “The good news is that the humidity is starting to get higher than it was and the winds have died down. Obviously everyone is very concerned.”

As for whether extensive fire damage in the northern San Francisco Bay area could create a shortage of grapes or wines, Horiuchi noted that 70 percent of California’s wine grape harvest by volume occurs in the inland valleys. Only 10 percent of the grapes by volume are in the Napa and Sonoma regions, she said.

Still, the region’s grapes are the state’s most lucrative, and the premium wines from Napa and Sonoma are a big reason the value of U.S. wine exports reached a record $1.62 billion in 2016, according to the Wine Institute. Ninety percent of the exports were from California.

Wine production in 2016 was valued at $729.5 million in Napa County and $586.5 million in Sonoma County, according to the two counties’ most recent crop production reports.

In all, the wildfires that have whipped through the wine country killed at least 10 people, destroyed 1,500 homes and businesses and sent thousands fleeing for shelters, The Associated Press reported. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Yuba counties.

The largest fires are the Tubbs Fire, which started near Calistoga and was at 28,000 acres as of Oct. 11, and the Atlas Fire in Napa County, which had grown to 42,349 acres, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fires prompted closures of dozens of major roads.

Among the wineries reported destroyed was Signorella Estate in Napa, Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa and White Rock Vineyards in Napa, the wineries reported on social media.

At Signorella Estate, winemaker Pierre Birebent and others were on the property trying to fight back the flames but retreated and made it out safely when the fire overcame the building, owner Ray Signorella Jr. said in a Facebook post.

“It has been a devastating fire,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. “At this time, we are still assessing the specific damage to Sonoma County vineyards as well as to our communities and neighbors. Reports of fire damage to wineries, businesses and vineyards continues to grow.”

The organization’s top priority now is to ensure the well-being of families, employees, volunteers and others, Kruse said in a statement emailed to the Capital Press.

“We are continuing to closely monitor the situation, but we are very proud of how our community is already coming together to support each other in this time of crisis.”

In the coming weeks as damage assessments become clearer, the California Association of Winegrape Growers will work with the state’s congressional delegation, federal officials and other wine industry organizations to make sure affected growers have adequate disaster response and recovery resources, the organization stated in a news release.

It had already been a challenging year for wine producers. Triple-digit afternoons in California’s prime wine-producing regions early last month left vintners scrambling to take protective measures to keep grapes from shriveling on the vines before crews could pick them.

But the heat also accelerated harvests, Horiuchi said.

“We had heat spikes in August and September that moved everything up by about a week,” she said. “More of it came in than usual … It’s mostly the later-maturing reds that may not have gotten in.”

If vineyards are burned and have to be replaced, it could be four years before they produce a crop that can be turned into wine, she said.

But fire crews are working to save vineyards if they can, said Shawn Boyd, a state Office of Emergency Services spokesman.

“We do know that this is a huge part of the California economy, and that is something we always take into consideration whenever we’re being strategic with how we mobilize staff, equipment and firefighters,” Boyd said. “It is definitely a priority.”

Wine producers weren’t the only ones affected by wildfires this week. In Butte County, cattle ranchers reported losing seed and hay barns and farms near Bangor, Calif., had to evacuate, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Livestock in the Napa-Sonoma region was moved to shelters, equestrian centers and fairgrounds in Calistoga and Vallejo, the CFBF reported.

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