Thankfully, fire season in California is coming to a close. When the devastating Santa Rosa fires swept through northern California, those of us in Healdsburg were on high alert, waiting to see where the fire would blow next. We are grateful that the Vinome office and the town of Healdsburg were spared the destruction. As the areas that were in the path of the fires recover, our thoughts naturally turn to our neighboring wineries. How does fire affect vineyards, and what does the future look like now? Here is an overview of the kinds of damage that were sustained.
A consuming vineyard fire is obviously the worst kind of damage. Some wineries lost buildings and equipment, and the vines were burned by the intense fires. There is no way to recover a burned vine. Even if the roots were spared, the vines were probably grafted onto strong rootstock. If these roots are able to put out new vines, they won’t produce the good winemaking grapes that the vines were chosen for.
Burned vines will have to be replaced, and the new ones will not produce usable fruit for at least three years. Even then, the highest quality grapes come from older vines. Vines in the area were often 30 to 40 years old, and some may have been growing grapes for over a century.
Heat damaged vines
Many of the vineyards in the path of the Santa Rosa fires escaped burning. Because of their high moisture levels and clear areas between vines, they acted as a natural fire break. However, the radiant heat from the surrounding flames still caused damage, from mild to severe.
When leaves and bark are scorched, the damage is usually mild. However, if the heat destroys many of the leaves the results are more serious. A damaged vine will produce less fruit for up to three years. If it is early in the season and the flowers or grapes are burned, that season’s harvest is destroyed. Fortunately, the Santa Rosa fires came late in the season, after much of the harvest.
The worst heat damage of all is when the radiant heat is high enough to kill the layer just under the bark of the vine known as the cambium. This destroys the vascular tissue, which kills the vine. It may look unharmed, but it is dead nonetheless.
While many grapevines may have been destroyed by the fire’s intense heat, they also provided a valuable service. Because vineyards don’t burn as easily as forests or even urban settings, fire crews were able to use vineyards as rally points and to focus on other, more endangered areas. In fact, the vineyards may have slowed the fire in areas enough to prevent a great deal of potential damage.
Another concern after a fire is smoke taint, where the smoke permeates the grapes on the vine. The scent persists, affecting the flavor of the wine. Fortunately, 85-90% of the grapes in the region had already been harvested. The loss would have been much greater if the fire had come earlier in the season. Although some people worry that the smoky smell could persist in the vines and flavor the next season’s grapes, this has been demonstrated to be untrue. This year’s crop will not carry the smoke of last year’s fires.
Those of us here at Vinome obviously love our own wine. But in this recovering and rebuilding season, as wineries all around us work to return to our shared love of growing grapes and making wine, our hearts are with them too. We believe the diversity of the wine country all around us is a beautiful thing. Just as our hometown of Healdsburg is pulling for the communities all around us, we are cheering on the rebuilding of our neighboring wineries too.