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Sonoma County’s 2019 grape harvest makes a blazing close thanks to Kincade fire

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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.

“I felt like I could breathe again,” she said.

When the power went off at Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, the sugar by weight in the cabernet sauvignon that was fermenting was low enough that owner David Ramey could close his fermentation tanks. He let them sit without power for cooling or any pump overs until Wednesday when he got back to his winery.

“No worries, wines are fine,” Ramey wrote in an email.

It will be a lot tougher for Ken Wilson, who lost his Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg that took him and his wife about 10 years to restore to its former glory as one of the first bonded wineries in the area. It dates to 1880.

He’s still in shock, but would like to rebuild using recycled and green materials while preserving the Alexander Valley winery’s historic character. Its distinctive 20-foot-tall steel sculpture of a boar did survive, while the rest of the complex was destroyed.

“We’re trying to get back to normal as fast as we can,” Wilson said Friday, as his crews began picking some of the 250 tons of mostly cabernet sauvignon grapes that he still had in his vineyards. Those picks should wrap up this week. Four of his other 10 wineries were open Friday.

Fifth-generation grower Brent Munselle said he was able to make one last pick on Thursday before ending harvest for the year. “We’re in full cleanup mode,” Munselle said Friday.

The Munselle vineyards in the Alexander Valley were relatively unscathed with the notable exception of newly planted vines on almost 5 acres that were destroyed because the straw around them caught fire. In addition, lines for drip irrigation to vines around the vineyards also were destroyed.

“The mature vineyards had already been picked and they should be totally fine for next year,” he said.

Duff Bevill, founder of Bevill Vineyard Management, said he had at least one pick set for Friday night, though he hasn’t heard from two other wineries about their remaining blocks still to be harvested. At least one grower told The Press Democrat that wineries were canceling grape orders because of concerns about smoke taint and frost late last week.

But Bevill said he tested some fruit on his vineyards and it showed low levels of guaiacol, a phenol compound from smoke that accumulates on the skin and can seep into the pulp of grapes — the metric that many wineries use to determine whether to reject grapes for smoke taint.

“All the grapes we have had picked have been of high quality,” Bevill said.

Before the Kincade fire, the North Coast grape harvest was going smoothly. The growing season had been relatively uneventful with the exception of late spring rain that occurred during bloom in some areas, which would ultimately reduce the cluster size for some grape varieties.

Even before the blaze, grape brokers and analysts had warned about an oversupply of grapes this year because of the record harvest in 2018 in Sonoma County, as well as flatlining retail wine sales. In fact, some growers in September said they were worried they would have to leave some fruit — that had not been under any sales contract from a winery — on the vines because of no interest from buyers.

In 2018, Sonoma County growers picked 275,977 tons for an average of $2,818 per ton. Most growers and vintners expect the yield will be much lower for 2019.

The buying activity picked up within the last month, as some were looking for deep discount buys of less than $1,000 per ton, said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Wine Brokerage in Novato.

The county’s pinot noir crop in 2018 had been about $4,000 per ton on average last year, while its cabernet sauvignon was a little more than $3,000 per ton, according to Ciatti Co.

“They were looking for bargain basement prices,” Clements said of buyers.

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

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