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Another wildfire upends grape harvest in Sonoma, Napa counties

The 2020 North Coast wine grape harvest only started three weeks ago. Already it is one for the record books with extreme heat, rain and wildfires to confound growers, in the midst of a pandemic the likes of which this country has not seen in more than 100 years.

Vineyard managers and vintners, however, say they are dealing with these obstacles the same way they adjusted to other challenges like droughts and an earthquake. After all, they contend, they are farmers and have the ingenuity to find a way to harvest their almost $2 billion annual grape crop and turn it into the country’s most coveted wines.

“We are still waiting for the locusts ... and there’s always an earthquake with this being California,” said Paul Ahvenainen, the senior winemaker at Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, as he tried to bring a little levity to the stressful situation after his winery was part of a mandatory fire evacuation Tuesday night.

Ahvenainen said he was lucky since he had a grape pick in Lodi set Tuesday night and he was able to get the nearby LangeTwins Winery and Vineyards to take the fruit for sparkling wine and crush it for Korbel since the Guerneville operation was closed. “There’s a lot of moving parts to this,” he said.

Although more than 200,000 acres in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties as of Friday were consumed by flames, the physical damage to the wine industry miraculously has been minimal. The blazes are mainly located outside prime vineyard locales.

There was growing concern heading into the weekend though. The area around Forestville and Westside Road west of Healdsburg — where prime vineyards are located — are under mandatory evacuation and a weekend weather watch warned of possible thunderstorms and lightning to trigger more wildland blazes.

Nick Briggs, the winemaker from Dutcher Crossing Winery in the Dry Creek Valley region noted only 5% of his crop had been picked as of Friday.

“We will have to get creative to work to save the fruit — misting the clusters in the vineyard before picking or setting up baths during de-stemming,” Briggs said.

Briggs and other winemakers are able to enter mandatory evacuation areas under special permits issued by Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith. It allows them to check on animals, their crops and ensure backup generators are operating in case the power fails. By Thursday, Smith had issued up to 50 such permits, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“We’re also helping some of our vineyard operators who were about to pick get in there with their crews and pick that crop or maybe you need a generator for irrigation system,” Tesconi said. “We are working very closely with the sheriff’s department and the ag commissioner to do that.”

At the same time, there is concern from groups supporting farmworkers that the personal safety of pickers is being placed in harm’s way with the wildfires causing poor air quality plus the coronavirus risk.

Omar Paz, an organizer with North Bay Jobs for Justice, wrote on Wednesday to Supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore urging them to help after he heard from one farmworker “who has reported his colleagues being pressured to work in mandatory evacuation zones.”

Paz in his email named a vineyard on Westside Road and another one on Dry Creek Road where workers in the midst of harvest had particular concerns.

“Workers are being told to work in extreme heat, terrible air quality, and ashes in these areas versus focusing on preparing themselves and their families for potential evacuation as its been reported that some live in the evacuation zones as well,” Paz wrote.

Cal/OSHA sent out a directive on Thursday to remind ag employers they must take steps to protect their workers from wildfire smoke. Under current rules, when breathing fine particles in the air reaches a certain high level, employers must take action to protect workers such as providing proper respiratory protection equipment. That can include disposable respirators and N95 masks for voluntary use.

Anne Katen, director of the pesticide and worker safety project at California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said in an email grape growers and contractors also are required to reduce exposure as much as possible through other means, which include relocating work to less smoky areas and scheduling tasks at times of the day when smoke levels are reduced.

Tesconi said local farmers are concerned about their workers, and grape harvest work is done during the night when the weather is cooler and air is typically better.

“Our industry is well aware of the need for the N95 (masks) and make sure everyone has them,” she said, noting ag commissioner Smith’s office has free N95 masks available for farmers and grape growers have been encouraged to pick them up.

For now, the one thing fairly certain about this year’s harvest is that it will wrap up earlier as a result of a lighter crop yield combined with the onslaught from Mother Nature. Many years, the grape picking doesn’t end until the first week of November.

Steve Sangiacomo, whose family oversees 1,500 vineyard acres primarily around the Sonoma Valley, said August heat is what’s “going to speed everything up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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