Sonoma County’s 2019 grape harvest makes a blazing close thanks to Kincade fire
The Kincade fire brought a dramatic close to the 2019 grape harvest, as the blaze stopped remaining picks and forced winemakers around the county to scramble to ensure this year’s vintage would not spoil while juice was being fermented.
The fire ignited at the tail end of the annual grape harvest after an estimated 95% of the Sonoma County grape crop had been picked by Oct. 26, the same day evacuations forced people to leave Windsor and Healdsburg, home to many wineries, said Karissa Kruse, executive director of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.
The Alexander Valley wine region — where vineyards grow grapes for world-class wines — was most affected as the fire whipped through the hills of a section known for its premium cabernet sauvignon and nearby Chalk Hill area.
Similar to the 2017 North Bay firestorm, the vineyards also served as firebreaks and were largely spared with the exception of vines on the edge of properties that were singed, county growers said. However, there was plenty of property damaged by flames or smoke or both.
The worst damage came along a nearly 3-mile stretch of Highway 128, where most notably the Soda Rock Winery suffered massive damage. Flames ripped through the 150-year-old property, leaving only its stone facade visible from the road.
The fire also circled many properties of Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa. Its Field Stone Vineyard sustained damage to its barn and winery, while structures at Stonestreet Winery and Vérité estate were unharmed, company spokeswoman Kristen Reitzell said.
“While the area around all three properties was threatened by fire, we remain hopeful that there was minimal or no long-term damage to the vineyards,” Reitzell said.
However, one of the Jackson family’s personal properties suffered extensive damage as proprietor Julia Jackson lost her Geyserville home and family’s Redwood House, which had served as focal point for entertaining, burned down.
While videos and photos captured damage from the vineyards last week, the real drama was occurring in wineries in Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor that were relying on generators as a result of the PG&E power shut-off. Winemakers were trying to protect the juice in fermentation tanks from spoiling.
“You kill the yeast if you get the fermentation too high (in temperature),” said Kevin Sea, head of the wine studies program at Santa Rosa Junior College.
At Jordan Vineyard and Winery, winemaker Maggie Kruse evacuated with her family from Windsor to San Francisco. Before she left, Kruse only had two tanks with active fermentations occurring. She closed the tops of the tanks, as well as the vents, and opened the winery’s other warehouse and barrel room to dissipate the carbon dioxide that was building since the fans were closed to make sure smoke did not seep inside.
She was on the phone with Tim Spence, director of the winery’s operations, checking with him as he did “pump overs” on the freshly crushed juice with the skins and seeds still contained. During the process, the juice for red wine is pumped from the bottom to the top of the vessel, which releases carbon dioxide to the surface.
Kruse is working her first vintage at Jordan, after taking over from longtime winemaker Rob Davis. She was relieved when she got back to the winery and didn’t smell any traces of smoke taint.