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Valley fire destroys Lake County winery, burns vineyards

Lake County vintners were grappling Monday with the effects of the massive Valley fire on the county’s $60 million grape crop as the blaze destroyed at least one winery, gutted some vineyards and forced winemakers to develop contingency plans for harvest.

Shed Horn Cellars, a 3,000-case winery just outside Middletown, was leveled during the fire and its owners, Michael and Adawn Wood, lost their home. The tasting room survived, along with enough inventory to fill orders, the couple said in a statement through the Lake County Winegrape Commission.

The wildfire posed the largest threat to vineyards in the county’s southeast corner, such as areas around the Guenoc Valley region southeast of Middletown.

Langtry Estate & Vineyard, the most noted winery in the area, suffered some damage to its 1,000 acres of vineyards, said Denise Roach, director of marketing of Foley Family Wines, which owns the 23,000-acre estate. She could not provide an estimate of how many acres were burnt.

Most of its vineyards escaped the fast-moving fire unscathed, said Eric Stine, winemaker for Guenoc wines, which sources its grapes from the estate. The winery’s historic building, the Lillie Langtry house, also was not damaged, but the winery was operating on generators.

Stine said he was amazed there was not further damage to the estate, noting that the blaze stopped right at the edge of many of its vineyards.

“The grapevines don’t like to burn,” Stine said. “It was pretty dramatic.”

The Valley fire is the third blaze this summer to impact the wine industry in Lake County, home to 35 wineries and more than 8,700 acres of vineyards. The Rocky fire in July and Jerusalem fire in August spewed flumes of smoke and ash over the region but did not threaten the core of the county’s vineyards, most of which are located to the west and northeast of Clear Lake.

The most recent fire, which broke out Saturday, strikes in the middle of harvest, an already frenetic time for grape growers and winemakers.

The closure of Highway 29 stopped or forced major changes in harvest around much of the Lake County, said Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. The road, which connects Lake County to Calistoga, is a major thoroughfare for trucks to deliver grapes to production facilities as well as a commuter route for harvest workers.

Most of the white grape varieties have been picked, while only some of the reds have been harvested, said Sommerfield, who could not provide an estimate of how much of the grape crop was still unpicked. Harvest is expected to wrap up in the first week of October, almost three weeks earlier than usual.

Shannon Ridge Vineyards was poised this week to start picking cabernet sauvignon in about 400 acres in the Red Hills wine region south of Clear Lake, but it has been forced to hold off because of the evacuations, said owner Clay Shannon. The land is near vineyards owned by Napa grower Andy Beckstoffer.

Shannon removed his machinery, allowing it to be used for other picks in the county, though his vineyards were not at immediate fire risk as of Monday afternoon.

The harvest was nearing its halfway point in Lake County when the Valley fire broke out. About two-thirds of the grapes for Guenoc wines have been picked, leaving mostly petite sirah to be harvested, Stine said.

Many Lake County winemakers are now likely to test for signs of smoke taint on the grapes. Smoke has large concentrations of phenol compounds, such as guaiacol and eugenol, which accumulate on the skin and pulp of the fruit, according to research at Washington State University.

The compounds are released during fermentation and can cause the wine to have an aftertaste that evokes the flavor of a wet ashtray, said Kay Bogart, an UC Davis viticulture and enology outreach specialist. Some of the 2008 North Coast vintage suffered from perceptions of smoke taint in the aftermath of pervasive wildfires that year in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

One bright spot for Lake County growers is that grapes are less susceptible to smoke taint at this point in the growing season, after they undergo veraison, when red varietals change color. They also must be exposed to high concentrations of smoke for a prolonged period before they are tainted, said Tom Collins, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s Wine Science Center.

“I’m not sure the risk is greatly increased by this fire,” Collins said.

Winemakers tested for such smoke taint earlier this summer after the two previous fires, but did not find much exposure, said Dave Dobson, a winemaker at Carneros Vineyards.

Carneros operates a crush pad that uses a procedure called “flash détente” during fermentation. In the process, the skins and juice are briefly boiled at temperatures up to 185 degrees and then put through a vacuum chamber to extract volatile compounds that contribute to smoke taint.

Dobson said he has already had some inquiries from Lake County vintners about using the machine, including one who would like to use it on Tuesday if he is able to pick the crop. “We expect to be pretty busy in the next week,” he said.

Collins and Bogart, however, cautioned that there has been no process that completely removes such compounds from wine and they could reappear in the bottle with the unsavory taint.

For his part, Shannon said he has heard from some vintners - “whiny crybabies” - about smoke taint, but he has vowed to pick. “You roll up your sleeves and quit crying about it,” he said.

At Guenoc, Stine said he was on his way to test his grapes at a laboratory in St. Helena. After he gets the results, Stine will wait for expected rain on Wednesday and will also use overhead sprinklers to wash away as much of the compounds as possible. He will again test the grapes later in the week and then make a call on whether to harvest and use a process like “flash détente,” or scrap the pick and take the financial loss.

“We will see what shift there has been in the baseline after everything has been rinsed ... then we will make our decision,” he said.

For complete wildfire coverage go to: www.pressdemocrat.com/wildfire

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

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