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California’s Wildfires and the Complexities of Wine in America

The fires that ravaged Northern California have provided an opportunity to see the reality behind our romantic visions of wine country.

california wine country wildfires

The Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park was one of the many unremarkable corners of California wine country. It was literally somewhere you blinked and missed as you drove Highway 101—box stores and gas stations on the frontage road, hiding a quiet subdivision behind them.

It was a place where teachers and health-care workers lived in modest homes, along with the wine industry’s rank and file, and immigrants who had settled into a quiet North Coast lifestyle. Directly to the north and west, Santa Rosa gives itself back over to vineyard land. And I’d often make my way into Coffey Park that back way: detouring at the PG&E substation, and driving along the vines as they gave way to shady residential streets.

It was also a place a lot of wine people knew, not because it was glamorous but because it housed several warehouse wineries—a pleasantly unimproved slice of Sonoma County, one that always felt comfortable to me, because while California has no end of beautiful landscapes, much of the real work of wine occurs in places like this.

Coffey Park is now known as ground zero for the most destructive wildfires in California history. The images of its devastation were reminiscent, perhaps, of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina, although in this case most of the houses were gone—leaving little more than ash behind. I spent enough time writing about wildfires to understand that bad things can happen to people who live in interface areas, where high-risk forests abut cities. But that wasn’t Coffey Park. By northern California’s fire-taunting standards, it was as safe a place as any.

They also laid bare a macabre undertone in the wine business. Amid a well of compassion, there was ghastly speculation about whether prized wines might be in peril. Perhaps that's what happens when you court customers more consumed by luxury than wine’s humbler culture.

An empty Highway 101 in Santa Rosa during rush hour on Monday, October 9th. Photo: Erik Castro

As such, it became a potent reminder that our view of California wine country often isn’t all that accurate. California in general excels at fabricating a vision of the good life, and its wine image-makers, especially, have honed a mythic image over the decades—refashioning Napa and Sonoma as rural escapist idylls. We’re meant to uncork a bottle in the midst of a Minnesota winter and be taken, in our minds, to a place with no worries.

The fires pierced that façade. And they did so, in part, by confronting us with the destruction of places like Coffey Park. They provided a tragic reminder that Napa and Sonoma (and Mendocino and Lake counties to the north, which also partly burned) are real places, with flesh-and-blood problems and awkward realities. That includes a significant gap between rich and poor, and a large and essential population of undocumented immigrants, without whom California wine doesn’t exist. They also laid bare a macabre undertone in the wine business. Amid a well of compassion, there was ghastly speculation about whether prized wines might be in peril. Perhaps that’s what happens when you court customers more consumed by luxury than wine’s humbler culture.

None of which is to diminish just how much the wine industry was brutalized by these fires. Several winery facilities, including Signorello and White Rock Vineyards in Napa, were essentially destroyed, and the inferno took a heavy toll in places like Napa’s Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder. Officials have taken pains to point out that most grapes had already been picked, and damage from things like smoke taint minimized. But it’s not quite that simple. A number of wineries, scrambling to keep vineyard crews safe, weren’t completely finished with harvest. And it’s a simple fact that some of the area’s fanciest wineries typically don’t harvest until late October—although I feel comfortable saying that the loss of some unduly expensive cabernet grapes should be low on anyone’s list of concerns. A larger cause for worry is that evacuations forced many wineries to abandon their fermentations at a crucial moment.

Still, the vineyards themselves fared relatively well—escaping severe damage in part because they’re the definition of a perfect firebreak, a landscape that can slow a fire’s spread. And grapevines are hearty plants, which is why, despite having lost several hundred vines that she and her husband farm on Napa’s densely forested Mount Veeder, Carole Meredith was relatively sanguine. “It’s even possible those vines are still alive,” she told me. It’s not a hasty assessment, as she’s also the nation’s foremost vine geneticist, and knows a thing or two about vine physiology. “They’ve been burned, but we don’t know how deep those burns are.”

The real toll, it’s now clear, is at a more human level. The sheer intensity of these fires set them apart; they were whipped up by winds stronger than 60 mph, with convection powerful enough to create tornado-like vortices. Many had no warning before they had to flee, including my friend Tony McClung, who sells wine around the country and had worked for a prominent Sonoma winery. He and his family lived on Napa’s fire-ravaged east side, and first they heard of the evacuations, he told me, when a police officer banged on their door just after his kids returned from a nearby swimming pool: “He literally carried my eight-year-old daughter out in a blanket. My wife carried out my six-year-old daughter naked in a blanket.” When flames arrived just 20 minutes later, the blaze was hot enough to turn the McClungs’ home to ash, and to melt their car into a hardened puddle of metal in the street.

His story reiterates a key lesson: Fire doesn’t care. It’s the great equalizer, ravaging rich and poor alike. And its devastation unfolds in ways that aren’t obvious.

The most tragic losses in the wine community were visited upon the less famous—people like the Vandendriessche family that owns White Rock Vineyards, which had valuable land but certainly wasn’t in Napa’s upper stratum; or the Olds family, which owns Sky Vineyards atop Mount Veeder. But much of the pain of recovery will fall on people who lived even more modestly, in places like Coffey Park or the nearby Fountaingrove neighborhood—the middle-class backbones of Sonoma and Napa.

“It trickles down to people who work in the vineyards and who drive the forklifts,” Jimmy Hayes, who manages Mayacamas Vineyards, which saved its winery but had many acres of fire damage, told me. “It’s not glamorous or sexy to talk about that, but it’s a huge part of why the industry works.”

That ground-level view of wine is what’s often pushed out of frame—by accident or intentionally—until tragedy comes along. Distance warps the way we think about wine, and it’s a key element in portraying it as a vehicle of escape. Candidly, I have committed the sins of distance these past weeks—following from a coast away as the fires destroyed so many thousands of acres in places that I love. I inquired from afar as friends agonized in slow motion.

I didn’t fly out to California for various reasons, mostly because covering daily news isn’t a part of my life today, and certainly no one needed another journalist clogging up the roads. But as I thought a lot about places like Coffey Park, I kept coming back to a concern I’ve held for a long time: We love places like Sonoma and Napa, yet we don’t always see them for what they are. We trade on those sunny myths of the good life. Here, too, I’ve sinned, leaning many times on the bounty of California as a narrative trope.

If there’s anything to see clearly now that the smoke has cleared, it’s how the mirage of these places disappears as you close in; they are more complicated and nuanced than how we prefer to see them. They have poverty and homelessness like anywhere else (Erik Castro, who photographed The New California Wine, documented this), and almost nowhere is there a more tortuous relationship between the elite, in the form of winery owners who control some of the country’s most expensive real estate, and the laborers who make their dreams a reality. That labor, mostly immigrant, is in ever shorter supply. So is housing—and now perilously so given the thousands of homes burned.

These are the moral and economic complexities of making wine in America today. And while none of this is meant to cross our minds when we uncork a bottle, it should.

When I talked to McClung, who is very much part of that middle-class core of the wine business, he was bringing his family back from San Francisco to stay at a friend’s guest cottage. He was reasonably worn out after not only losing his house but navigating insurance claims, contemplating a new mortgage, figuring out where to enroll his daughters in school. “It’s just overwhelming,” he told me. “I don’t know what comes next.”

One thing that pretty much everyone agrees must come next: for the rest of us to keep buying and drinking North Coast wine—and as things settle down, to return and spend money. It’s not simply that economic losses are projected at anywhere from $3 to $6 billion, but also that the fires came during Napa and Sonoma’s busiest time of year, when the small restaurants and shops that rely on tourists finally start to turn a profit. Small wineries will need cash in coming months to complete the vintage, pay suppliers and meet payroll.

Perhaps, then, if there’s any good to come out of what’s happened, it might be that we have an opportunity not only to support Sonoma and Napa—but also to see them in their full complexity, and to acknowledge their economic realities. And it’s a chance to go back and reconnect them to their agricultural roots, which are too often obscured as success arrives. If we can do that, we have a chance to make our love for California wine far more meaningful, and enduring.

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