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Napa Valley vintners survey Glass fire damage as annual harvest wraps up early

CALISTOGA — The mercurial nature of the Glass fire and its destructive path in the Napa Valley was on stark display Tuesday afternoon on a stretch of the Silverado Trail, one of the finest wine regions in the United States.

On the east side of the road, Susan Boswell of Chateau Boswell was standing with a group surveying the ruins of her fire-ravaged stone winery and vineyard where grapes were still on the vines. She declined to speak with a reporter.

But on the other side of the road up on a hill, Rombauer Vineyards was largely unscathed. Flames did char the underbrush surrounding the family-owned winery. Even the new 5-acre vineyard section of sauvignon blanc grapes was spared.

“We were worried it was going to jump across (the road) into the trees right below our administration building,” said Robert Knebel, chief executive officer of the winery founded 40 years ago by Koerner and Joan Rombaurer.

Knebel showed a video on his smartphone he filmed Sunday night as he left the estate when the flames encroached. He said in the video: “We pray that there is a winery here in the morning.”

Those prayers were answered for him and most wineries in Napa County, in terms of the amount of property damage. However, the extent of the smoke potentially tainting the grapes remains a concern for many vintners who now have dealt with the Glass and Hennessey blazes during the annual harvest.

The big fear on Sunday night was the Glass conflagration could sweep west across the Silverado Trail and gut the heart of the prime vineyard region where planted acres of grapes can sell for up to $1 million an acre.

“It could have been terrible,” said Matthew Owings, chief financial officer of Rombauer.

There are 150 winery properties in areas of Napa County already evacuated or where people have been warned to be prepared to leave, said Janet Upton, spokeswoman for the county.

The number who have sustained significant damage like Boswell isn’t yet known but appears to be limited. It does include Fairwinds Estate Vineyards and Castello di Amorosa, a castle winery in Calistoga that lost its farmhouse used for wine storage, a bottling line and fermentation site. Firefighters were able to save its underground cellars. The loss included 2,500 cases of wine stored for its tasting room and for shipping. Also, a more than 100-year-old barn and home at the Tofanelli Family Vineyard in Calistoga was destroyed, owner Vince Tofanelli said.

Wine Spectator reported the fire also pummeled hillside wineries Burgess Cellars and Newton Vineyard with heavy damage.

Overall, Teresa Wall, spokeswoman for the Napa Valley Vintners trade group, called it an “active situation” and said she did not yet know the full economic toll.

Another winery that avoided damage to main structures was Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, even though the fire barged onto its estate in the Mayacamas Mountains. Hot spots were still evident Tuesday on the property and a tree stump was burning.

“The structures are intact. All the surrounding area is burned. It’s a very volatile situation,” said a Schramsberg employee who declined to give his name.

The main effect of the Glass fire and the earlier Hennessey and Walbridge fires for Napa and Sonoma county grape growers is smoke taint inflicted on the crop.

There was little visible activity Tuesday along a section of the Silvervado Trail lined with vineyards. Thick smoke hung over the area making it seem like New Delhi or Beijing rather than pristine Napa Valley.

In 2019, the North Coast harvest was valued at $1.7 billion. And vintners said the back-to-back wildland blazes effectively have brought to a close a 2020 harvest that began early in the first week of August, but was expected to go at least through October.

In Sonoma County, where the Glass inferno has done little damage to vineyards and wineries, about 85% of the 2020 grape crop was picked, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.

There was a big push to harvest fruit before the fire ignited Sunday because of an earlier heat spike that made the sugars in the grapes at the proper level to be picked, Kruse said.

“It’s a shorter, more condensed harvest than normal,” Kruse said.

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

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