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Smoke Permeates California Wine Country as Vintners Assess Damages

This report was filed Tuesday, October 17, 2017, over a week since the outbreak of the Northern California wildfires.

The Northern California fires are still burning, though they are coming under increasing control. The one that still threatens Oakmont, about 25 miles east of Santa Rosa, is still not contained.

In many areas, however, many residents have returned to find their homes reduced to blackened rubble or having suffered significant smoke damage. And vintners are finally making their way through the fire zone to find out if their wineries and vineyards survived.

Balletto Wines tweeted to Wine Enthusiast that all their employees were safe, though several had lost everything and had to be evacuated. “Winery far enough away we had no evacuation. About 5 miles southwest of Paradise Ridge Winery. All vineyards are safe. Such a devastating fire.”

Over at Merriam Vineyard in Healdsburg, winemaker Jonathan Bomberg said Wednesday, “We’re open. Actually, our tasting room is open 100 percent.

“We were too far from the Tubbs fire [that decimated Santa Rosa], and we were too far from the Pocket fire [that consumed 12,430 acres]. We saw all of the smoke and the fires, but we didn’t lose any days,” he said to Wine Enthusiast.

The custom-crush facility Vinify, which makes wines for 25 different vintners, is back up and working, said Matt Duffy, winemaker and production manager. Duffy, who also lives in Santa Rosa, evacuated his wife and children a week ago. The winery had received “about 90 percent of the grapes in before the fire. Still, hope to have 10–15 percent brought in,” he said.

“Smoke taint is a worry,” he said. “The flames from the Tubbs fire that consumed the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park came as close “as about 200 yards from one of our buildings.”  The smoke’s stench permeates the air, but Duffy isn’t as concerned about that as he is about “the hazardous waste that is right next door,” he said.

The death toll reached 41, which includes residents of Sonoma, Napa, Yuba, Mendocino and Butte counties as well as at least one first responder who was delivering water to the front lines when his truck went off the road on Monday.

Silicon Valley Bank Vice President Rob McMillan, whose home was within three-quarters of a mile of the flames, said in an email to Wine Enthusiast, “There is so much to do now to get people and businesses back on track!”

Mordy Herzog, general manager of Royal Wine Corp., which owns Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, California, told Wine Enthusiast in an email: “By miracle, the vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Counties from which we source the grapes for some of our better wines were spared by the fires.”

Jeff Morgan, co-owner of Covenant Winery, one of Sonoma’s kosher wine producers, told a local paper on Monday that he had yet to learn the fate of his fields as ongoing fires and rescue efforts had left them inaccessible for the time being.

Joseph Herzog, vice president of operations for Herzog Wine Cellars, said, “We have reached out to our growers, who we consider like family, and have asked how or what we can do should they need our assistance. And we have reached out to Hagafen and Covenant to let them know we are there for them and to help in any way we can.”

Constellation Brands, the maker of such wines as Estancia, Clos du Bois, Franciscan Estate, Mount Veeder or Mark West, on the other hand, may be less impacted than others. Cowen & Co.’s analyst Vivien Azer who follows the company, told her clients that some 75 percent of Constellation wine production comes from three facilities not near the fires and 80 percent of the grapes had been picked.