Beer & Wine Wine

How California’s Wine Country Is Emerging from 2020’s Devastating Fires

And how it’s preparing for future ones.

A row of fire-damaged grapevines at a vineyard in September 2020 in St. Helena, California. The Glass Incident Fire burned tens of thousands of acres in Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying numerous wineries and structures.
A row of fire-damaged grapevines at a vineyard in September 2020 in St. Helena, California. The Glass Incident Fire burned tens of thousands of acres in Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying numerous wineries and structures. Image:

Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

California’s wine country is still reeling from the almost unfathomably destructive effects of 2020’s rampant wildfires. The shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were devastating enough; the economic impact is projected to total about $4.2 billion for the wine industry in California, according to a study conducted by Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics. But those losses are compounded by equally devastating ones from a terrible season of fires. 

The LNU Complex fires and Glass fires in August and September 2020, respectively, destroyed wineries, vineyards and hospitality spaces across Napa and Sonoma, and the smoke that lingered after the blazes doomed much of the red-wine-grape crop. Exact numbers are impossible to tally at this point, as many winemakers are still monitoring the reds they opted to ferment and age for signs of smoke, but California crush report data for 2020 shows a 13.8% drop year-over-year, with 43% less of Napa’s trademark red cabernet sauvignon processed and a 39% reduction in Sonoma’s flagship red, pinot noir. One estimate from the California Wine Institute and market research firm BW166 estimates the damage to be $3.7 billion, including loss of property, wine, grapes and future sales. 

That’s a lot of billions, and even the most bulletproof insurance plans are covering just a fraction of those losses. And yet plenty of winemakers, sommeliers and hoteliers, many of whose structures and vineyards were heavily damaged during the fires, are rising like cheerful Phoenixes from the ashes. 

“Last year was bad, but the wine industry has been through worse than this, if you put it into historical perspective,” says Judd Wallenbrock, the president and CEO of C. Mondavi & Family, the parent company of Charles Krug winery in Napa, which has been in business since 1861. “We couldn’t sell alcohol at all for 13 years during Prohibition; there have been two world wars, economic collapses and phylloxera. When you work in the agricultural industry, you learn to be resilient. The earth is resilient, and so are we.”

In addition to exhibiting remarkable buoyancy and grit in the face of a series of economic and ecological cataclysms, many wine-industry members are approaching the future with a steely determination to diversify their sales models and rebuild their physical spaces so that the impact they suffered will never, they hope, be repeated. 

Physical Reset

Hospitality spaces and wineries impacted by the fires are rebuilding but differently. The Meadowood Napa Valley resort, community hub and wine-education center suffered a reported $100 million worth of damage. The Glass Fire hit the northern edge of the resort, leaving the clubhouse that contained several dozen hotel rooms and a three-star Michelin restaurant in ashes and damaging about half of the guest cottages scattered across that area. Still, the southern end of the resort and about half of the resort’s rooms remain undamaged. 

“I joined Meadowood in September and the resort was already buffeted by layoffs due to the pandemic,” says resort managing director David Pearson, who joined Meadowood following his longtime role as CEO of Napa’s Opus One. “Then the fires came. Before they were even out and we could fully assess the damage, I spoke to [Meadowood owner] Bill Harlan, expecting him to bemoan the tragedy. But he was very philosophical. He said that we have an obligation to reimagine the estate and rebuild it with the current circumstances in mind.”

The management team is currently “rehabilitating, cleaning and shining up” cottages that suffered nothing more than smoke damage, fixing the singed nine-hole golf course and reestablishing the woodlands that defined the property. 

“Our Douglas fir didn’t make it, but our redwoods and oaks did,” says Pearson, acknowledging that even now he and his team are still in the process of combing through the resort’s 250 acres to assess precise damages. “Right now, we’re working on managing the forest in a more proactive way, replanting it in consultation with Cal Fire, clearing dead brush and figuring out how to manage the canopy to mitigate fire risk.” Meadowood reopened to more than 1,000 club members as of May 15, 2021, and will be able to offer poolside grill service as restaurant rebuilding efforts continue. 

Smith-Madrone was among at least a dozen wineries on Spring Mountain that were walloped by the Glass Fire. “We weren’t hit as hard as many who lost their wineries, vineyards and homes,” says Stu Smith, the winery’s co-owner and enologist. “Our winery is a relatively intact island within a sea of incinerated forest. The fire beast consumed our wooden fence posts, 130 in all. We were up there for about seven days fighting the fire with my family and neighbors.”

The winery’s staff harvested their cabernet and tried to make wine out of it, but it was, says Smith, “awful.” They didn’t get their power back until November 3. And yet amid all of this chaos, Smith says they managed to completely pivot their sales model to e-sales.

“We made it, but we can’t have another repeat,” says Smith. “Right now, my family and I are in Boy Scout mode. We’re preparing for the worst, clearing forest and doing what we have to do to make our property safe for what is probably inevitably going to be another terrible fire season. Cal Fire is not the cavalry. They cannot do it all.”

Smith says he’s walking every inch of his property to assess risk, putting in fences because “we’ve noticed fires don’t like fences” and considering investing in “real” fire-fighting equipment and clothing. Most of all, Smith is doing everything he can to urge fellow winemakers and the county to allow “prescribed burns in forests to clear underbrush and allow the forest to get back into balance,” he says. “This was the way before the Europeans came here with their colonial mindset.”

He’s not alone in pushing officials’ hands. According to a letter Pearson wrote to the Napa County Board of Supervisors as reported by the Napa Valley Register, the resort had to lay off 500 employees due to closures related to COVID-19 and the wildfires. The employees and the tax revenue the resort generated for the county—an estimated $20 million between 2015 and 2019—won’t return until the resort can fully reopen. 

All told, it should be noted, 4,200 wineries in California deliver $57.6 billion in state economic impact and $114 billion national economic impact. Napa alone provides a $9.4 billion local and $34 billion national economic impact, according to Napa Vintners

Wine businesses are pressuring the county to expedite rehabilitation and rebuilding permits, arguing that it will boost not just their own bottom lines but, through tax revenue, help pay for the essential services the community needs in the wake of the disasters. 

Infrastructural Reset 

The destruction in 2020 was enormous. The wildfires out west incinerated more than 5 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington. About 4.2 million of those acres were in California. 

Many fear that 2021 could be worse. The year ahead looks grim, after a dry autumn, winter and spring. So far, 2021 is tied for the third-driest on record, according to the San Jose State University (SJSU) Fire Weather Lab, declaring the potential for a serious fire season “very Scary!” in a tweet in April. The region’s fuel-moisture content (FMC) is so low, warns SJSU, that fires will ignite and spread more rapidly than usual. 

In April, the Napa County Board of Supervisors unanimously committed $42.5 million over five years to improve infrastructure and fight the expected fires in 2021. The Napa Communities Firewise Foundation, composed of volunteer firefighters, winemakers and community leaders, has launched an 18-month study that used the remote sensing technology called Lidar to monitor and measure dryness levels and predict fire behavior. Also on tap: a five-year vegetation management plan, a helicopter dedicated to dropping up to 1,000 gallons of water at a time on nascent fires, the building of fuel and fire breaks and the spacing out of trees, and the removal of vegetation and underbrush. Funding sources include $34 million in payouts from PG&E, who agreed to pay the county for damages caused by the 2017 wildfires. 

Individual wineries are doing what they can to protect their own spaces more aggressively, while also signing on to help the community at large. Dan Petroski, the winemaker at Larkmead, whose harvest was impacted by the fires and who saw one of three contiguous vineyards surrounded by fire on two of its three sides, is eliminating potential fuel sources and working with task forces in the county to improve infrastructure.

“We need to upgrade our basic infrastructure,” says Petroski. “The Glass Fire was sparked by an electric fence, and fires in 2017 were caused by power line and equipment issues. It’s important to look at fuel, but we also have to look at and rehabilitate our aging electrical structures, and that’s what we’re trying to get the county to do.”

Petroski sits on the board of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and works on the Napa Valley Vintners’ task force, both of which have been outspoken in pushing for a much more aggressive approach to fire prevention. 

Psychological Reset 

Meanwhile, wineries hit the hardest are finding creative ways to manage the incredible losses they’ve suffered. 

Matt Sherwin, the winemaker at Sherwin Family Vineyards on Spring Mountain, recalls being “worried about the impact of smoke on our grapes” initially, he says. “But then the winery burned down, and absolutely everything was lost. We lost our entire harvest and everything in the winery. The 2019 was still in barrel. Out of 300 barrels, only four didn’t burn.”

The winery and its vineyards, farming and winemaking equipment were all destroyed or badly damaged. Insurance is covering pennies on the dollar for the 2019 fires and nothing for 2020. The building was covered. And yet Sherwin is out there rebuilding and dreaming up ways to make up for the two-year gap in the P&L. 

“Well, we won’t even begin to really feel it for two years,” says Sherwin. “And this community is amazing. Our friends are bending over backwards to help out. I think what we’ll do is make a high-end red blend from fruit we can source from friends for the 2019 and 2020 vintages and call it Resilience.”

Having a father whose background is in construction helps, he says. “We’re just focused on the end goal, rebuilding, sourcing fruit and actively clearing any fuel we can see.”

Others are diversifying their sales channels. “We’ve always sold through multiple channels, but between COVID-19 shutdowns and the fires, we had to get creative,” says Petroski, who says that while revenue remained flat, the modes through which the wine was sold changed dramatically. “We usually depend on a combination of hospitality, off-prem and DTC. We shifted all of our hospitality outreach to email, and we were amazed by the response. We have about 25,000 people on our mailing list, and all of them signed themselves up. They wanted to help since they couldn’t visit in-person, and that saved us.”

Like Larkmead, Charles Krug made up for the dearth of sales in the on-premise and tourism categories by refocusing sales efforts toward “ecommerce, telephone sales and zoom tastings,” says Wallenbrock. “We also reached out to country clubs across the country who we have relationships with and held virtual events with their club members. It was great for them to be able to provide a service like this during their own lockdowns, and we loved being able to connect with new people.”

Smith, meanwhile, says that because of the winery’s quick focus on DTC sales—it offered special library releases, verticals and other special and rare vintages via ecommerce—this was “actually our best year ever in terms of sales.”

According to the State of the U.S. Wine Industry report from 2021, ecommerce surged 153%, and the number of e-orders was up 190%. Before the pandemic, online sales hovered around 2% of total wine sales in the U.S.; by November 2020, that number grew to 10%. 

The winemakers we spoke with are prepared for that increase to be permanent and have found that making connections with people across the country, who would have been unable to visit them even under normal circumstances for a variety of reasons, especially rewarding. 

“Online selling is, without question, the change agent that will deliver the greatest transformation to wine sales over the next decade,” writes the study’s author, Rob McMillan, the EVP and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. 

The New Normal(ish)

For the wineries and restaurants that weren’t directly affected by the fires, business is back and, in many cases, better than before. “We’re busier than ever,” says Charles Williams, the director of membership and hospitality at Oakville’s Promontory. “We’re thrilled to welcome people back in and host guests in formal seatings. It has been an incredible experience welcoming people who’ve been in lockdown for a year into our space and giving them our full attention and a truly luxury, bespoke experience.”

At Press Napa Valley in St. Helena, which has the largest collection of Napa Valley wines in the world, “business is booming at the restaurant,” says wine director Vincent Morrow. “Seeing the joy on people’s faces as they come out to the Valley from across the country to have what for many is the first vacation in a year of lockdown, it’s really special. We feel privileged to welcome them back, and honestly, it’s so heartening to see the activity and buzz return to Napa.”

The buzz may be back, but the spirit saved it and will sustain it through the coming challenges. There are countless stories of bravery and sacrifice during those smoke-filled days and nights in August and September. 

Sherwin cut the flaming porch off one of his 86-year-old neighbor’s home so he could stay there safely, “because he’s a stubborn mountain man, and he wouldn’t leave,” says Sherwin. Charles Krug opened up a base camp for PG&E in October to assist in firefighting. 

Wallenbrock remains convinced that Napa’s boom time isn’t over; it’s just beginning. “The U.S. only exports 5% of its wines, and we import 15% to 20%,” he says. “We haven’t even begun to tap Napa’s potential. We have very little product and a lot of demand. We only consume 3 gallons of wine annually per capita in the U.S., whereas in Europe, it’s 15 to 18 gallons per person. There’s an incredible opportunity for growth.”

If one region in the U.S. is synonymous with wine, it’s surely Napa. Yet despite its outsize place in our imagination and cellar, it only represents 0.4% of the world’s wine production. 

There is, indeed, room to grow, if Napa is properly protected and prepared for the fire season ahead.