2020’s fire damage to Napa wineries already far exceeds 2017, and it may not be done


CALISTOGA — Three days after the Glass Fire first erupted in Napa’s eastern hillsides, it was starting to become clear that the fire’seffects on the valley’s wine industrywere nothing short of catastrophic.

On Tuesday, some vintners who had evacuated from their properties were only just beginning to take stock of the havoc that the previous two days had wreaked. Les Behrens and Lisa Drinkward made it back to their Spring Mountain estate, Behrens Family Winery, only to find two of their main buildings, including the primary winery, in ruins. Neighboring Sherwin Family Vineyards also found its winery destroyed, adding to an unfortunately long list of Napa Valley wineries that had burned since Sunday night.

The fires remained active, too. At Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, all structures were still standing on Tuesday afternoon, but fire crews were actively keeping flames at bay. Other firefighters were standing on the perimeter of Highway 29 north of St. Helena, putting out spot fires on the hillsides.

In the short time that the Glass Fire had been burning, Napa Valleyhas lost so much– wineries including Burgess, Newton, Chateau Boswell, Hourglass, Fairwinds and Hunnicutt had been completely or nearly completely devastated – and it stands to lose much more.

Already, the sheer volume of destruction to the Napa Valley wine industry has far exceeded what happened in 2017, when fires including the Atlas Fire tore through Wine Country and leveled wineries like Napa’s Signorello Estate. Back then, six Napa wineries saw structures damaged or destroyed; this time, there are at least 12 so far. That doesn’t begin to account for all the other types of harm that may require more time to reveal themselves, including smoke and water damage to buildings, longterm health issues for vines and probable smoke impact on the grapes themselves.

“It just happened so fast,” said Carlton McCoy, CEO of Burgess Cellars, whose barrel warehouse and 1880 stone winery on Howell Mountain burned. “The wind just wasn’t in our favor.”

At least one major structure was leveled at Burgess Cellars on Howell Mountain, as seen on September 29, 2020.

The timing of the event for Burgess could not have been stranger. The Burgess family, who established their winery in 1972, had just sold their property and company earlier in September to Gaylon Lawrence, Jr., an Arkansas agriculture billionaire who also owns Heitz Cellar, and brought on McCoy, the Heitz CEO. The Burgess property is rich with history, as the original site of Chateau Souverain, one of Napa Valley’s pioneering wineries.

Although the loss of the older buildings is tragic, McCoy said that the real assets at Burgess aren’t the structures – they’re the grapevines. “The vineyard, when you come down to it, is what makes the wine,” he said. It’s not yet clear if the vines are damaged in the longterm, but McCoy is hopeful. When his team acquired the property, they found remnants of previous eras in the wooded areas nearby: redwood stakes, presumably from vestigial vineyards, and wild grapevines that had never quite died. “The vines find a way to keep growing,” he said.

At Castello di Amorosa, employees on Tuesday midday were forklifting debris out of the second-story windows of a stone farmhouse that had burned, leaving only its frame intact. Thousands of bottles of wine were charred black, precariously stacked inside a room whose ceilings and doorways had been blown out. The central building at the Calistoga winery – the castle, beloved by tourists for its authentic-feeling medieval style – had survived.

Jose Juan Perez works to drain a fermentation tank and separate the skins at Castillo di Amorosa in Calistoga, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. The winery is having to drain some of their fermentation tanks earlier than normal in hopes of avoiding smoke contamination from affecting the wine because the Glass Fire that raged through the area the day before.

But only one area of that farmhouse had remained untouched – a crawl space inside the president’s office where accounting records are kept, said employee Vanessa Close. She and a colleague were loading file cabinets that had been extracted from the building into a car in the winery’s parking lot.

“It just looks like a big melted mess,” Close said of the farmhouse.

On the road leading up to Newton Vineyard, employees were rolling up long hoses in a driveway. A vineyard manager named Ernesto, who did not give his last name, said they’d had to use the hoses to keep the fire away from two barns – an effort that was successful. However, neither they nor firefighters were able to stop the Glass Fire from destroying multiple buildings at the top of the property’s hill, including the winery. Outside the buildings, tables and chairs for visitors sat empty on scorched pavilions, with the metal frames of shade umbrellas collapsed on the ground.

And still, amid the chaos and loss, the daily life of making wine went on. Castello di Amorosa winemaker Peter Velleno oversaw staff as they hauled half-ton bins of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes into a crusher-destemmer machine, on their way to begin fermentation. Inside the castle, other workers drained grapes and just-fermented wine out of tanks. At Rombauer Vineyards, whose structures had narrowly escaped the fires, winemaker Richie Allen was handling wines that were still fermenting in tanks in an outdoor area, surrounded by blackened hills on all sides.

An employee at Bremer Family Winery, just down the road from Burgess on Howell Mountain, walked past the entrance to a wine cave hauling a grape-soaked punchdown tool over his shoulder. The property, parts of which date to the 19th century, was fully intact, though winemaker Bob Bolan said that the owners had lost their home.

Despite the thick, smoky air, Bolan was hopeful that some of his grapes at the top of Howell Mountain – where the air was a little bit clearer than at the winery’s lower elevation – may have escaped the threat of smoke taint, which would give grapes an unpleasant taste.

The dust from the disaster had yet to settle, with the Glass Fire moving quickly west into Sonoma County. But many of the vintners in Napa Valley who had suffered losses did not hesitate to say that they would reconstruct their properties.

“There’s no question we’re going to rebuild,” said McCoy of Burgess. “This place has been making great wines for 100 years. It’s not going to stop now.”

Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. Email:[email protected]


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