A Fiery Event: Sonoma’s Kincade Fire
As I write this, the warnings are out in wine country once again.
They call them “red flag” warnings and they are issued by the National Weather Service when conditions for dry brush, low humidity and high winds combine to produce conditions susceptible to fire outbreaks. It used to be they were designed to warn people in affected areas to curtail burns, not to smoke cigarettes outside and to be diligent in extinguishing their charcoal grills.
But now, in the “new reality” in wine country, it means “get ready for the power to be turned off and have your bags packed for evacuation.”
As you read this, more history of the Kincade Fire in California’s Sonoma County wine country will have already been written. But as of now, Tuesday morning Oct. 29, 2019, the fire has torched over 75,000 acres (twice the size of the city of San Francisco) destroyed or damaged at least three wineries, burned 123 structures and forced the evacuation of over 190,000 people, including the entire wine towns of Healdsburg and Windsor. It has disrupted lives, businesses, schools and yes, the 2019 wine harvest.
The fire began over a week ago under a waning crescent moon where John Kincade Road and Burned Mountain Road cross in the hills above Geyserville, California. Fires are generally named for their point of origin and I guess Burned Mountain was too ironic to get the designation.
On the night of ignition, a significant wind event was already in progress and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had “shut down” power to thousands of homes in the area — an effort to prevent fires. But near Kincade and Burned Mountain a 230,000-volt transmission line remained active, as it did not meet the criteria that PG&E had in place for it to be “de-energized,” according to PG&E’s CEO and President Bill Johnson. In a news conference, the utility announced that the line in question had a malfunction at 9:20 p.m. on Oct. 23. Seven minutes later, calls reporting the fire began to come in. While there has yet to be a cause determined for the Kincade Fire, there is enough evidence, based on the origins of last year’s devastating Camp Fire, to know that Northern California’s power grid is a dangerous thing when a red flag alert is in place.
Kincade’s main area of impact has been in the northern corner of the Alexander Valley AVA. This is cabernet sauvignon country. If you have driven through the area on the two lane Highway 128, you know just how achingly beautiful it is. The rows of vines, the oaks, the wineries and the powerful Mayacamas Mountains rising above make it one of the most bucolic wine regions in all of California. The valley and the surrounding slopes are home to iconic producers like Silver Oak Alexander Valley (their newest solar powered winery was profiled in this space earlier this year), Jordan, Hanna, Stonestreet, Robert Young Vineyards and Alexander Valley Vineyards.
Thus far, the Soda Rock Winery has officially been destroyed by the fires and there was damage to the barn and winery at The Spire Collection at Field Stone Vineyard in Alexander Valley, as well as at Alexander Valley Vineyards.
Soda Rock, whose 1860s-era building had been lovingly restored by owner Ken Wilson and his family over the last decade, is a well-known landmark on route 128. Field Stone has roots dating to the 1870’s. It was purchased by Jackson Family Wines in 2016 and is a part of their Spire Collection.
But beyond the actual, visual destruction, the fires in wine country leave behind other damage. The fire season coincides with harvest season, which means that there is major disruption at the one time of year that is most important for a farmer. Couple that with the power outages, and the process of cooling and fermenting wines become much more problematic.
Then there is the threat of smoke taint. Grapes still on the vine can ingest the properties of smoke and be impacted by nasty chemicals that can render them useless for fine wines. Fortunately, over 80% of this year’s grapes have already been harvested in the region, but it is a concern for winemakers globally as conditions for fires become more intense with global warming.
And remember, the wine business is also reliant on tourism. As ski resorts are damaged by reports of bad snow years, so too are wine concerns affected by fire news. Having people stay away because of weather and fire is a very real concern for many wineries’ bottom lines, especially family-owned wineries.
And finally, there is the psychic shock that affects everyone in the region during and after a fire catastrophe. I know, as I lost a home in a California wildfire when I was in my teens. The loss of the past, and the time, money and effort it takes to rebuild can take a toll that lingers for years. My heart goes out to those affected by the Kincade Fire and all of the current California fires.
Let’s hope the wind stops blowing.
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