Wine country struggles with a new label: Fire country
The things that set California apart, for better or worse, were all there last Sunday afternoon: terrifying flames, wine country glamour and a rescue straight out of Hollywood. Captured via smartphone. Of course.
As John Viszlay and Dominic Foppoli watched, horrified, the Kincade fire crested the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains and headed straight for their adjoining vineyards. Winds gusted. Smoke swirled. At any moment, they realized, everything they’d worked for would be lost.
“We came within a couple hundred yards of the fire hitting and destroying our winery,” said Foppoli, who is also the mayor of nearby Windsor. It would have been a disaster, “if it wasn’t for a perfectly timed Hollywood scene, where the skies parted and a 747 supertanker . shows up out of the sky and blasts the fire.”
A bright pink plume of skillfully placed fire retardant saved Christopher Creek Winery, which was founded in 1972 and acquired by Foppoli’s family 40 years later. It spared Viszlay Vineyards, which has been operated by its eponymous owner and his son for the past decade. Beyond that, good news is in short supply.
Evacuation orders have lifted in Healdsburg, Windsor and most other swaths of Sonoma County. Vineyard owners and winemakers have been returning to their operations for the first time since the vast Kincade fire ignited, to assess the fire’s impact. Some tasting rooms are reopening.
For the most part, vines and wineries survived the flames, and, as of Saturday night, the blaze was 74% contained. But questions loom over how much of the 2019 vintage survived a week of intense heat, smoke and evacuation-caused neglect. How big an economic hit the region’s small, family-owned operations will take.
And whether the wine country’s carefully cultivated image can survive year after year of increasingly destructive fires, which are reshaping how the world views this region of rolling hills, orderly beauty, popping corks and clinking glasses.
“We don’t want this to be our new normal,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. “We love people visiting Sonoma County and our fellow wine regions and having a great experience. We don’t want people to worry about coming here. We have some work to do.”
When Sonoma County isn’t reeling from disaster, it is among California’s most scenic and verdant regions. Grapevines march in graceful rows - bright green in spring, lush with fruit in summer, deep red and gold in the autumn chill. The Russian River snakes through the Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley grape-growing regions to the ocean. There are stately redwoods, 50 miles of rugged Pacific coastline, more than 425 wineries. It is Napa’s relaxed and welcoming sister.
Christopher Creek Winery is located at the northern tip of the Russian River Valley grape-growing region. Three other famous viticultural areas spread out in the distance: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill. On Wednesday afternoon, a week into the Kincade fire, a stripe of cement-colored smoke separated foothills from blue sky.
“Even today, outside of the haze, if we clean the pool out, and we didn’t know about the fire, we could be sitting around and enjoying a bottle of wine and being as happy as we were a week ago,” Foppoli said. “We need people to understand that.”
That, however, is a big if. On that crisp October day during wine country high season, Healdsburg was still under evacuation orders. California Highway Patrol officers and military police guarded the barricaded off-ramps along the 101 Freeway. The twisty, two-lane roads between wineries were empty.