Death toll rises as wildfires devastate Napa and Sonoma wine country

Wildfires continued to rage throughout Northern California overnight, with 23 people now reported to have lost their lives and several wineries completely destroyed, with many more sustaining extensive damage.

Paradise Ridge in Sonoma. Credit: Facebook: Paradise Ridge

Emergency crews have been battling around 100 fires spreading over several thousand acres in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Solano Counties since the early hours of Monday morning, with widespread evacuations taking place throughout the region.

The fires were swept throughout northern California by high winds, and were most damaging in the Atlas Peak-Stag’s Leap area near Yountville, in Sonoma County between Kenwood and Santa Rosa, and in the mountains north and west of Calistoga.

A total of 23 people are now believed to have lost their lives in the fire.

This morning, Napa Valley Vintners released a statement confirming that of its members, four wineries had suffered “total or very significant losses” due to the fire, but noted that it was yet to hear from some of its members based in the most vulnerable areas of the valley, including those along the Silverado Trail, in Calistoga and in the Mt. Veeder/Partrick Road/Henry Road areas.

“It has been a challenging two days due to numerous wildfires burning in our area,” the organisation said in a statement. “Our top priorities remain the safety and wellbeing of our colleagues and our neighbours here in Napa County and in the surrounding areas also facing similar challenges. Our hearts and condolences go out to the hundreds who have lost their homes, businesses and personal property. We are saddened by the news that there has been loss of life and pray that those numbers will remain small.”

Among the wineries known to have been most severely affected are Signorello in Napa and Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, whose wineries have been razed to the ground.

Posting on its Facebook page yesterday, Ray Signorello Jr confirmed that their winery had been destroyed in the Atlas Peak fire, which started around midnight on Sunday evening.

“Winemaker Pierre Birebent, the winemaking and vineyard teams were on property fighting fire that evening but retreated when it overcame the building,” he said. “All 25 employees are safe. Neither Pierre or I have been able to access the property to fully survey the damage. The 2015 vintage of red wines and 2016 vintage of white wines were safely stored off the property in American Canyon. Please keep our colleagues in the wine industry and everyone who has been affected by these tragic fires in your thoughts and prayers.”

Paradise Ridge meanwhile posted several photos on its social media accounts showing the destruction caused by the fire, telling its followers that it was “heartbroken” by the loss of its winery in the Tubbs Fire.

“The winery may be broken but our estate vineyards survived, which is foundation of our wine,” the family said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with the many who have lost so much and we count our blessings that our family and team are safe. We are resilient and we will rebuild. Much love to our community.”

Frey Vineyards in Mendocino has also reported devastating losses. Speaking to the Wine Spectator, Nathan Frey of Frey Vineyards, said: “Our winery has burned down, and most of the family homes, though our warehouse is intact. The homes of many friends and neighbors also burned, and our heart goes out to all of them.”

Treasury Wine Estates, whose wineries in the areas affected include Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Stags’ Leap and Sterling Vineyards, said it had suffered “limited damage” to its infrastructures and sites.

“TWE’s focus is on ensuring all of our employees are safe and we are not sending people in harm’s way,” it said.

“The local fire crews and authorities are doing their best to work on containing the fires. At this stage, there is limited damage to our infrastructures and sites, however the fires are ongoing and we still have limited access to all of our different assets. The majority of our vineyards and wineries are not presently in the direct fire zones.”

Several fires continue to burn in and around the Napa Valley, according to the CalFire Incident Report, affecting thousands of acres. Much of the damage caused, specifically to wineries in the region, is still being assessed with many more wineries known to have suffered varying degrees of damage.

“We have been in touch with the winery organizations in regions impacted by the fires to offer assistance,” the California Wine Institute said in a statement released last night. “Right now, they are focused on ensuring the safety of their communities, offering assistance and gathering information. Assessments of vineyards and wineries cannot be made until the fires are contained.

“Our thoughts go out to all of those who have been impacted by the fires. We are very grateful for the firefighters and first responders who are working tirelessly to help people and bring the fires under control.”

With regard to the possible impact on this year’s harvest, NVV estimated that 90% of grapes were picked before the fires started on Sunday night, with wineries able to assemble crews and safely get to their vineyards are continuing to harvest grapes.

“It is too soon to tell how the fires and related challenges will impact this year’s vintage overall. What we do know is that of the grapes remaining on the vine, it is almost all Cabernet Sauvignon,” NVV added. “Our winemakers report that this thick-skinned variety, fully-developed and ready to be picked for the 2017 harvest, is not expected to be impacted by the smoke from the fires.”

In response to the devastation, NVV has reactivated the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, which the NVV established in 2014 following the South Napa earthquake.

Those wishing to make donations can contribute via the Community Foundation of Napa Valley’s website, or by clicking the link available on the napavintners.com website. The Community Foundation plans to begin distributing funds to those in need in the coming days.

Mount Veeder. Photo: Jackson Family Wines

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