Napa, Sonoma wineries are pouring as California wildfire memories fade

Blazing yellow mustard flowers that herald spring have returned to garnish the hillsides and flatlands of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, the heart of California’s wine country and American wine culture in general.

The blooms flourish in contrast to the perception “that the wine country was destroyed, the wineries were all destroyed, the vineyards were all destroyed” in wildfires that began last Oct. 8, says Tom Blackwood, general manager of Buena Vista Winery in the Carneros region of Sonoma County.

“In reality, that’s far from true. When people actually visit, I keep hearing, ‘Wow, it’s not even close to what I thought.’ “.

As the wine country’s busy season, April through October, begins, folks in the wine and hospitality business say they’re optimistic.

They stress that damage to the wine industry overall was relatively small, that the Northern California wine country is uncorked and ready to pour.

“You’ll find the community is even more open and gracious to tourists coming,” says Rob Mondavi Jr. Of Michael Mondavi Family Estate. “They’re profoundly important to the sharing of our wine culture and our economy.”.

Properties affected.

In more than a dozen interviews, wine professionals, restaurateurs, hoteliers and officials from Napa and Sonoma take pains not to minimize the effect on life and property.

More than 40 people died and more than 5,000 homes were destroyed in fires that swept across 162,000 acres total in four main zones. Napa and Sonoma are neighboring counties about 50 miles north of San Francisco.

The Reno Gazette Journal identified 25 wineries across Napa and Sonoma affected by the fires, from minor damage to a total loss of the property. (See the map below).

The map above shows the locations of wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties. The winery properties damaged by the fires are shown in red and were confirmed through each winery’s social media account, website or credible news reports. The Reno Gazette Journal identified 25 wineries that sustained damage ranging from minor to catastrophic. Clicking on each location includes information about potential damage and the sourcing for that information. Location data provided by Napa County and Reno Gazette Journal reporting. Map by Brian Duggan, RGJ.

Hills vs. Floor.

Mondavi is a fourth-generation Napa Valley winemaker and a member of the famed Mondavi wine clan.

Although the Atlas Fire damaged his family’s Animo vineyard, high on Atlas Peak in southeastern Napa Valley, “the average tourist wouldn’t notice there had been a fire” in the valley, Mondavi says.

That’s true for the vast majority of the Napa Valley, where only 10 of about 500 wineries experienced significant damage, with none completely destroyed, according to Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group.

During an early spring visit that begins in the southern part of Napa Valley, visitors sip sparkling wine on the terrace of Domaine Carneros, a winery built in the style of a French château.

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Beyond the winery, vine rows untouched by fire slip through cool breezes down to the Napa-Sonoma Marshes and San Pablo Bay. Less than 8% of Napa Valley vineyards were within a fire zone.

Along California 29, one of two main arteries in the Napa Valley, wine estates great and small sit unscathed on the valley floor, their gates open and ready for some of the 3.5 million annual visitors.

“Any impact was primarily in the hills to the east and west of us,” says Michael Honig, owner of Honig Vineyard & Winery, which occupies a choice center-cut portion of the valley in Rutherford.

During the early days of the wildfires, which burned from Oct. 8 until final containment late that month, the winery functioned as an industry command center because it had a generator and a working land line.

Buildings and vines.

Silverado Trail, the other main artery, nudges the Vaca foothills to the east of the Napa Valley floor. In early spring, farm signs at the southern end of the trail tout dried prunes and “strawberries picked daily.”.

Farther north, singed patches of hillside, some of the few visible signs of fires six months earlier, can be seen above the Oak Knoll District. Below, the gates of Signorello Estate are shut, the property closed after the Atlas Fire engulfed its winery buildings.

Signorello’s 40 acres of vineyards, however, aren’t damaged, and all its fruit had been picked.

In fact, according to folks in the wine industry, at least 90% of the 2017 harvest in Napa Valley and Sonoma County had been brought in before the wildfires began.

“We’re lucky in that respect,” says Ray Signorello Jr., Owner of Signorello Estate. “It was an early harvest.”.

Signorello Estate didn’t lose of any of its barreled wines from the 2016 vintage or any of its bottled wines, which were stored off property. That’s true of most other Napa wineries, meaning there’s plenty of wine for visitors to taste and buy.

Although he estimates he has two to three years of rebuilding ahead of him (including his home that burned down), Signorello offers the same optimism as his colleagues across the wine country.

“Without belittling the loss of life or property, it’s important to say that the doom and gloom shown to the world in October isn’t the reality right now. Napa Valley is open for business.”.

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New tasting room.

Compared with much of Napa Valley, Sonoma County and its residents suffered devastating losses, with whole neighborhoods wiped out. More than 5,100 homes were lost, according to Cal Fire, versus 700 homes heavily damaged or destroyed in Napa.

And yet, like Napa Valley, the effect on wineries and vineyards was far less severe.

Only 4% of Sonoma vineyards were located in fire zones, according to Sonoma County Vintners, a trade group, and only 23 wineries experienced damage, from minor to destruction, according to research by Sonoma State University.

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Heading north on California 12, beginning where Napa Valley blends into Sonoma County, visitors will come upon the village of Kenwood, where the brick remains of one home might lie across the street from a vineyard that seems undamaged.

Just outside the village sits a modest redwood-colored bungalow with a dog snoozing on the porch.

This is the current tasting room of Paradise Ridge, a winery that once sat among 155 bosky acres before being destroyed (but not the vines) by the Tubbs Fire to the north in Santa Rosa, the city that saw the greatest damage. Sonia Byck-Barwick’s family owns Paradise Ridge, and she grew up on the property.

The tasting room opened 10 days after the estate’s residents fled the hillside fire in the wee hours, a tenant having been roused by his 6-month-old baby.

Since then, “it’s just been constant people coming and supporting us,” Byck-Barwick says. “Our tasting room sales have gone up significantly.”.

Besides the canine tasting assistant, the outpost features seating inside and a garden out back.

As the family plans how it will rebuild Paradise Ridge, Byck-Barwick says, “we’re trying our best to provide an amazing experience at the tasting room, knowing this is the main place people can visit us.”.

Brides, interrupted.

Unlike Napa Valley, where no lodging properties burned, three hotels were destroyed in Sonoma County. But since the wildfires were fully contained, three new hotels have opened: a Holiday Inn Express in Windsor, Oxford Suites Sonoma County in Rohnert Park, and the Astro in Santa Rosa, a stylish reworking of a 1960s motor lodge.

“With all the new openings, we are basically at an even point,” says Birgitt Vaughan of Sonoma County Tourism, the county’s official tourism arm. “The number of rooms available in Sonoma County remains the same: 6,300.”.

At Vintners Inn, a Santa Rosa hotel with 44 rooms and 70 vineyard acres, the Tubbs Fire burned to within 500 yards of the property, sparing not just the existing buildings, but also construction, underway since November 2016, of 34 new suites, two pools and a spa.

“What we actually have seen most affected is our wedding business,” says general manager Percy Brandon, echoing comments by properties across Napa Valley and Sonoma County.

“People call and say, ‘Do you still have space?’ Our staff has been doing a lot of explaining,” he continues, walking across a cobblestone courtyard set with a tall, plashing fountain.

“This year, I think we’ll have more local weddings than destination weddings.”.

Traffic report.

As in Napa Valley, the wildfires didn’t touch many parts of the Sonoma wine country.

Outside Geyserville, to the north of Santa Rosa, the Pocket Fire came close but didn’t reach Francis Ford Coppola Winery, and during a spring visit, cars continually make their way up an allée of vine rows to the turreted tasting room.

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery, the sister property to Vintners Inn, lies on the floor of Dry Creek Valley, an area chockablock with wineries in northern Sonoma County.

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“There was smoke in the air, the wind shifted all the time, we were literally driving around with our cars packed and some of the fires were close to our mountain ranches, but ultimately, we were so lucky” because the winery was spared, says Cheryl McMillan, a director at Ferrari-Carano.

The other afternoon, visitors filled the tasting bar at the winery; others idled on a terrace that offered ridiculously gorgeous views of hills and vines.

Last October and November, during and immediately following the wildfires, “everyone experienced a drop-off in business during one of our busiest times,” McMillan says, but since then, “we’re seeing visitors starting to come back.”.

That assessment tracks with a study issued in January by the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University.

The study found the fires led to “an immediate and temporary slow-down of visitors” to the Northern California wine country, with 71% of wineries reporting a drop in visitor traffic and 62% a drop in tasting room sales.

The study also found “the numbers show this trend has corrected and continues to improve.”.

Still, some in the wine industry remains concerned, though optimistic.

Weekends in the wine country are typically busier, but it’s “mid-week where we’ve seen our biggest decrease: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” says Honig, the Honig winery owner.

“It’s the mid-week traveler. When we see them really increase, then we’ll know we’re really back in business.”.

Too soon to tell.

According to wine professionals, right after questions about damage to wineries and vineyards, many visitors want to know the effect of the fires on wine flavor and pricing, in part because of speculation, at the height of the disaster, about smoke taint and wine shortages.

The answers to such questions are uncertain for now. Yes, 90% of the grapes had been harvested before the fires — a good sign. Also a good sign: Only a tiny percentage of vineyards will likely need replanting (replanted vines take several years to bear fruit).

At the same time, experts are divided on the lasting effects of wildfire smoke on grapes that were still hanging in the vineyard or on the vines themselves. Nor should the California wildfires of 2008 that created an ashy note in some wine automatically be taken as a guide.

“Those fires started in July and lasted longer,” says Tondi Bolkan, winemaker at Francis Ford Coppola. “The smoke laid on the vineyards the whole summer.”.

Tor Kenward of TOR Kenward Family Wines has been in the Napa Valley wine industry since the mid-1970s. He guesses the percentage of wine harmed by the wildfires will end up being “very low, but that’s the big unknown.”.

In the meantime, he says, “this is one of the greatest times to visit the wine country. You might actually get a reservation in a restaurant.”.

Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink editor of RGJ Media, part of the USA TODAY Network. Join @RGJTaste on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.