San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

By Craig W. Anderson

When the huge wildfires swept through Napa-Sonoma wine country, it appeared the many vineyards and wineries were doomed – and many long-time wine grape and wine making operations were damaged or destroyed – but after the fires were controlled and put down the damage, while horrific, wasn't as bad as it could have been.

The question now became: why? And how did Lodi's wine producing area aid their fellow growers and vintners up north.

Incredibly, many vineyards in the estimated 245,000 acre burn areas seem to have emerged largely unscathed while thousands of acres of oak and redwood woodlands were obliterated along with entire residential neighborhoods, businesses and large portions of towns and cities. The fires devoured more than 8,400 homes and other buildings such as commercial structures, barns and sheds. The total loss currently stands at $4.6 billion and climbing, and 30 wineries had etensive damage or have been destroyed.

Vineyards' positive role
"Vineyards save lives," said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers. "It's clear as can be. They saved property and lives in Napa County."

Local wine grape grower Brad Goehring said, "Vineyards helped fire fighters determine where suppressant needed to be dropped from the tankers and drove strategic planning and where to establish fire breaks." He added that what was learned from the NorCal fires could help the local wine industry prepare for a "just-in-case" situation should, somehow, an extreme fire occur in the county's wine grape growing areas. Analysis by fire officials indicated that the relatively open space of vineyards holds more moisture than oak woodlands and thus created nature's firebreaks. Taking this natural fire suppression into account allowed firefighters to ply their trade elsewhere, protecting residential neighborhoods and businesses.

Radical environmentalists no help
"This fuels the debate about forest management practices that radical environmentalists want left alone so the forests will return to nature," Goehring said. "They want no development at all which makes no sense because it's been proven that vineyards and agriculture are beneficial to species and habitat. And now we've learned they help curtail fires, too."

The regulation was adopted following an extensive process of gathering public and stakeholder opinions over two years with three formal hearings and 15 public workshops around the state.

Knowing final impact takes time
As is usually the case with harvests and, in this instance, a disaster, the final results won't be known for months, according to Putnam, who said the effects on vineyards won't appear instantly. "We're going to have to wait and see." She also said she was "shocked at how much vineyard acreage escaped the worst of the flames. In some instances the fire stopped suddenly "as if you drew a line in the grass."

Lodi region assists wine production
"Some Napa growers had fruit awaiting crush and they diverted the grapes to us and Lodi crushed and shipped the juice back to them," said Joe Valente, vineyard manager for Kautz Farms of Lodi. "Harvest up there was almost completed but reds were still on the vines." 

A concern of wine grape growers is that harvested fruit could have a smoky taste that's impossible to remove but Valente said grapes could be tested before being picked for smoke damage. Because most of the grapes had reached maturity and were only exposed to smoke for a short time, "smoke taint" probably won't be a short or long term problem requiring contributions of juice from the Lodi area.

Supply and demand, prices
"This year's crop was below average and if Napa lost wine due to fires, that could affect supply and demand and prices," Valente said, adding, "The carryover at Napa from 2015/2016, especially reds, may help to balance the year and create a manageable supply.

Fire risk less in Lodi region
"I delayed my harvest a couple of days so we could send fruit and juice to Napa if they needed it when the roads were clear and they could handle it," explained Bruce Fry of Mohr-Fry Ranch. "I don't think we here in District II have an issue with fire like they do up there. We're not surrounded by oak woodlands and redwood forests so our fire threat is very different."

Ancillary effects, new rules 
Goehring attended a recent meeting with state officials concerning the wine country blazes. Discussions covered other states sending utility workers to help with reestablishing California's power grid and that counties should, said Goehring, "Make sure their county fair facilities are kept up as they can be used for staging grounds, portable hospitals, etc. It's important to keep such facilities and infrastructure updated and maintained, including egress and ingress."

Alarmed by the frequency and intensity of fires in the state over the past few years, California regulators have promulgated new fire safety rules focused on PG&E and other big electricity utilities. And the state Public Utilities Commission is looking at increasing inspections of electric equipment, mandating more frequent utility patrols related to equipment and vegetation and widening the required clearance between power lines and vegetation.

"We're not sure what, exactly, the impacts of the fires may have on our region at this time," said Amy Blagg, executive director of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association. "Our growing community hopes that Napa-Sonoma will be able to make it through this and return to business as usual."