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Hurricane Hilary strikes Southern California

Vineyard damage is expected in Temecula Valley and Santa Barbara as the storm rages through California, though Napa is safe.

Hilary, the first tropical storm to hit California in 84 years, struck the southern part of the state Sunday night local time with heavy rainfall but reportedly less wind damage than most downgraded hurricanes that commonly occur on the country’s East Coast.

To make matters more dramatic, as the storm approached the region, a 5.1 earthquake on the Richter scale hit the town of Ojai in the mountains east of Santa Barbara at 2:41 pm, though thankfully causing only minor damages.

Vineyards in the Temecula Valley near the border with Mexico, in the Pacific coastal areas of Malibu and southern Santa Barbara County and further inland in the lower part of the Central Valley were expected to be the most heavily hit with flooding and heavy rains that may result in mildew damage in areas where harvesting has not yet begun. Because of a late spring start to the growing season, the harvest this year throughout California is running about a month later than normal.

Well-known winegrowing areas north of Santa Barbara, including Paso Robles, Sonoma County and Napa Valley, are not expected to be affected by the storm.

“I think that vineyards in the Malibu Coast AVA [American Viticultural Area] might be a little more affected by the storm,” says Dan Fredman, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo Coastal AVA, “but that’s unlikely to impact the overall situation in terms of California grape production. Everybody I’m speaking to this year is talking about harvest being delayed about a month this year — all that rain early-on put things back. It may cause problems with heat spikes, but for the most part, people here are looking at it as an opportunity for long, slow ripening and greater complexity in the finished wines.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that Sunday afternoon’s earthquake caused some damage at the Ojai Beverage Co., where manager Nick Howard reported that “a US$900 bottle of Tequila and a few wine bottles were broken.”

A better assessment of the rain, flooding and wind damages to vineyards and wineries is expected later today as the storm moves further inland into the desert areas of Nevada.

The last tropical storm to strike California was in 1939, only six years after the end of Prohibition allowed legal winemaking in the US to continue.


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