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Handful of Sonoma County wineries evacuate due to wildfires during harvest

The North Coast wine grape harvest has been thrown into uncertainty by an unusual August combination of extreme heat, rain and lightning that ignited wildfires forcing evacuations in northwestern Sonoma and eastern Napa counties, including a few wineries that shuttered in the midst of their busiest season.

The fires now present the most significant risk from the strange weather that began last week with 100-degree temperatures and rain that prompted growers’ concerns over the possibility of moisture causing grapes to rot on the vines before they can be picked.

The extraordinary weather conditions and blazes come at an inopportune time because the annual grape harvest is the key economic driver for the region. Last year, harvest generated $1.7 billion for growers in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

Most notably in Sonoma County, global winemaker Korbel Champagne Cellars east of Guerneville was ordered to evacuate Tuesday night just as it was in the thick of picking grapes used in its sparkling wines. Crews picked the first grapes on Aug. 3 and were on pace for much more harvesting this week, company spokeswoman Margie Healy said Wednesday.

“We heard from our winemaker ... that this was going to be a short and very intense harvest,” Healy said.

Korbel had expected to pick all of its grapes by Labor Day weekend, she said. However, farmworkers left the vineyards and the winery is closed because of the Walbridge fire. The company employs 320 people locally.

Should the winery lose electricity, Korbel has backup generators to ensure crushed fruit juice would not spoil before it could be turned into wine, she said. Also, Korbel arranged to transport additional grapes picked here to its Heck Cellars property in Bakersfield to be crushed.

Other significant Sonoma County wineries in the fire evacuation zone included Gary Farrell Winery near Forestville and the Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery north of Jenner.

As Wednesday progressed, blazes started moving close enough to other local wine regions that they were added to the evacuation warning area. That included vintners along Westside Road, just west of Healdsburg.

Among them is John Bucher of Bucher Wines. At 4 p.m., Bucher stood on a hill on his property and could see smoke from the Walbridge fire billowing from a ridge six miles away. His crew was spraying certain areas around his property with manure water to help create a firebreak.

The wind appeared to be cooperating at the time, heading away from the area, he said.

“We’re watching the flames (in the distance) jump from tree to tree right now. It’s really active, but actually the wind is much more favorable for us than what we anticipated,” he said.

If the wind doesn’t change direction, Bucher planned to have a crew pick grapes at 2 a.m. Thursday.

In Napa County, the wine sector’s biggest concern had been the blaze around Lake Hennessey in the Pritchard Hill area. Wineries Nichelini and Kuleto are located there in the evacuation zone. But the fire on Wednesday pushed east away from the popular Silverado Trail and east towards Solano County.

Nearby Chappellet Winery on Wednesday said in a Facebook post so far the property was not threatened and the inferno was moving away from its vineyards, but staff remained vigilant.

“We have been preparing for the possibility of fires for many years, with an extensive fire-response plan in place which includes an in-house fire chief, an on-site fire truck, pressurized water tanks, and fire breaks established around the vineyard,” winery officials wrote on Facebook.

The wildfires came after vintners were scrambling after last week’s heat wave that brought rain in parts of the region that dampened vineyards threatening to rot grape clusters.

The pace of grape picking accelerated as a result of the heat wave, with winemakers calling for picks especially after Santa Rosa reached 103 degrees on Saturday. Already, vintners had expected the harvest tonnage of grapes this year to be less than recent years.

The heat wave followed by unseasonable storms that swept through the region on Sunday and Monday stoked fears among many farmers that certain grape varieties such as chardonnay and pinot noir could be prone to rot if moisture was left to fester within their canopies.

Sebastopol grower Domenic Carinalli had his crews spraying fungicide on his chardonnay and pinot noir grapes Wednesday morning as a precaution against the potential for clusters to rot if water seeps inside the bunches.

“Just for precautionary reasons, I am going to spray it all,” Carinalli said, of his crop noting that if a fungus called “botrytis gets started in there, then it’s bad.”

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

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