Blazes torch Napa, Sonoma wineries and vineyards

The spate of wildfires that ripped through prime grape-growing regions in Sonoma and Napa counties early Monday destroyed some wineries, charred acres of vineyards and threw another wrench into an already challenging harvest season.

Most significantly, the Tubbs Fire that engulfed the Fountaingrove area destroyed all the buildings on the 156-acre estate of the Paradise Ridge Winery, said owner Rene Byck. All of its products on site also were destroyed, a significant loss for a business where 90 percent of its sales are made directly to consumers.

The vineyards, however, did not appear to be significantly harmed, Byck said.

The winery has carved out a reputation as prominent wedding destination with its events center overlooking the Russian River Valley. It employs about 35 workers.

“We are more concerned about our employees’ losses and their potential loss of employment,” said Byck, who vowed to rebuild.

In Napa County, the Signorello Estate Winery along the Silverado Trail was gutted, according to photos taken from the fire scene. Firefighters on Monday battled a blaze in the mountainous Atlas Peak wine region, home to many premium vineyards.

While TV news video showed a charred sign for the William Hill Estate Winery in Napa, a spokesman said the winery “sustained only minor cosmetic and landscaping damage, in addition to minimal vineyard damage.”

Over at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, Bundschu family members were warily watching the blaze that moved down from Arrowhead Mountain and had already torched some vineyards on their 256-acre estate, said Katie Bundschu, vice president of marketing and sales.

Her parents’ house along Napa Road had burned down, but Bundschu said her family members remained at the winery to help keep guard even though they realized there was little they could do. The estate has been in the Bundschu family for almost 160 years, making it the state’s oldest continuously owned family winery.

“This is our livelihood,” Bundschu said. “We aren’t just about to abandon yet.”

Wineries along Highway 12 near Kenwood did not appear to suffer much damage on Monday. A spokesman for Treasury Wine Estates, owners of Chateau St. Jean just north of Kenwood, said there was little damage to the winery. The winery last year shipped all of its winemaking production to its sister Beringer Winery in St. Helena.

“At this stage, there is limited damage to our infrastructures and sites, however the fires are ongoing and we still have limited access to all of our different assets,” said Treasury Wine spokesman Brenton Dodd in a statement. “The majority of our vineyards and wineries are not in the direct fire zones.”

Pat Roney, president of Vintage Wine Estate, said on Monday he did not the know the status of the BR Cohn Winery in Glen Ellen, located in the thick of the evacuation area. Like most local wineries, BR Cohn gave its employees the day off because of the fires.

The blazes erupted as the wine industry neared the end of this year’s grape harvest, punctuating a tumultuous season during which growers battled a severe heat spike over the Labor Day weekend that was later followed by a cool spell with rain that threatened the vines with fruit rot.

About 90 percent of Sonoma County crop had already been picked, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.

“There were still grapes in the vineyards that were scheduled to be picked in the next 10 days. At this time we have no information on specific crop damage,” Kruse said in a statement.

Late season varietals such as cabernet sauvignon - which is Napa County’s most expensive grape - and merlot represent most of the remaining crop in the region, said Alison Crowe, director of winemaking at Plata Wine Partners in Napa.

“It’s prime cabernet time,” Crowe said. “People have been active for the last two weeks (with cabernet) and they are going to keep doing it for another two weeks.”

Crowe said she tried to check early Monday on some of her vineyards in Carneros, which have all been picked, but was stopped as a result of a CHP roadblock at Highway 121 near the Carneros Inn.

The fires could trigger concerns over smoke taint for the grapes that remain on the vines. Vintners contend that fruit earlier in the growing season is much more susceptible to such exposure and that smoke must linger for a significant time to cause any taint, as it did during 2008 wildfires in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

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

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