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The Wine Country Fires

Robert Whitley on

Rightly or wrongly, when most Americans think of wine country -- a vague term at best -- they mean the Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County an hour north of San Francisco. The region embodies the good life.

Rolling vineyards give way to wooded hillsides, and idyllic villages with world-class restaurants dot the landscape. Along the way, winery tasting rooms abound. It is Disneyland for adults, a respite from the hustle and bustle of the big city and the cares of the real world.

At least it was until Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, when the peace and tranquility was shattered in the middle of the night by a series of wildfires that swept through the hills and canyons in what is now the deadliest siege of wildfires in California history. The number of fires now totals 16. At this writing, there are 41 known dead and hundreds unaccounted for, and the flames continue to burn.

Nearly 6,000 structures have been destroyed, including more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa, the cultural and financial hub of Sonoma County. Well over 200,000 acres have burned so far, and CAL FIRE doesn't anticipate full containment of the fires until Friday, Oct. 20. Over the past eight days, there have been about 100,000 evacuations as the winds shifted and forced residents to flee from areas they once thought were safe.

After the loss of life and property on an epic scale, the question that hangs in the air is whether life in wine country will ever be the same. I believe the wine industry has already given us the answer.

When the fires broke out, the 2017 harvest was, by most estimates, approximately 90 percent complete. The industry, which employs tens of thousands in the region, swung into action. While about a dozen wineries were destroyed, the vast majority of the more than 1,000 in the region survived intact.

Though tasting rooms were closed, vineyard and cellar workers rallied behind the scenes to keep the wineries going, bringing in the last of the hanging fruit and watching over the fermentation tanks at the most critical stage of the winemaking progress.

There were plenty of heroes to go around. Patrick Roney, whose Vintage Wine Estates owns numerous wineries throughout the region, headed up efforts to keep those wineries running even though his own house had been destroyed by the flames. Winemaker Alison Crowe of Garnet Vineyards & Picket Fence Vineyards in the Carneros district reached out on Facebook and offered to make room for any evacuees who have horses or large vehicles. Jeff Mayo of Mayo Family Vineyards rallied his troops to save the winery even as his own home was within shouting distance of the flames.

The industry, a community within a community, has come together to demonstrate that the fires were not the end of the world as everyone in the region has come to know it. The wineries that were destroyed will likely be rebuilt, while the others will clean up the mess and forge ahead.

There has been talk of smoke taint, which can be very real, but given that most of the grapes had been picked and were either in stainless steel tanks or barrels when the fires broke out it, the 2017 vintage should not suffer ill.

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