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Clayton fire in Lake County destroys Lower Lake winery

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Though the Clayton fire has destroyed one winery, Lake County’s wine industry remained largely unscathed Monday as vintners geared up to harvest the county’s $61 million grape crop.

The most notable loss was Terrill Cellars’ Tuscan Village Winery, whose structure was destroyed as the blaze spread through the Lower Lake business district. The building was mostly a pile of charred rubble on Monday, save for part of its front facade.

“The Tuscan Village is gone,” read its Facebook page.

Some wineries were forced to close for part of the weekend as evacuations took place. Dustin Fults, proprietor of Fults Family Vineyards along Highway 29 north of Twin Lakes, said he shut his tasting room Sunday because the power went out.

The fire started only a quarter-mile from his winery, which also includes a 4-acre vineyard, but moved east and has not threatened his property.

“We kind of lucked out,” said Fults, who has been operating his winery for almost two years. He noted a fire helicopter used his irrigation pond to grab water to help put out the blaze.

Staff at the Six Sigma Ranch and Winery, south of Lower Lake, were returning to the 4,000-acre ranch on Monday, a day after it was evacuated, said Christian Ahlmann, whose family owns and operates the property.

“We had to set up generators to keep our meat products safe,” said Ahlmann, Six Sigma’s vice president.

The blaze did not appear to have crossed over onto the ranch, Ahlmann said. Workers checked on its 80 head of cattle, 20 pigs, 10 sheep and a few guard dogs Monday then began irrigating vines on its 40-acre vineyard, where the first pick of the year is likely to occur Friday, he said.

“It looks like the ranch has come out clean,” he said.

The Clayton fire missed the signature areas of Lake County’s wine industry, home to the mountainous Red Hills region known for its cabernet sauvignon and the Big Valley District near Kelseyville known for its sauvignon blanc.

The local wine industry has undertaken concerted efforts recently to promote the region as a place for high-quality wine at reasonable prices, compared to neighboring Napa and Sonoma counties. There are about 40 wineries in the county and almost 9,500 acres of vineyards.

The fire struck during the final stretch of the county’s wine tourism season, which starts on Memorial Day and runs through Labor Day.

Vintners, however, likely caught a break with the timing of the fire, which struck late in the growing season. Grapes are much less susceptible to smoke taint once they have turned color, and they must be exposed to high concentrations of smoke for a prolonged period to be affected.

For instance, winery owners have not reported any downgrade in quality in last year’s crop of 38,433 tons in the aftermath of the much larger Valley fire, which was sparked in mid-September 2015.

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

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