Sonoma, Napa winemakers need property access to salvage grapes, monitor fermentation

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Grape growers and winemakers looked to gain access to their properties Monday to salvage fruit still on the vine and keep fermentation from going awry in the grapes that have already been crushed.

In the wake of devastating wildfires that have damaged and destroyed large swaths of the North Coast, Sonoma and Napa agriculture commissioners were working with law enforcement officials to arrange for vintners to drive to their sites in evacuated areas, specifically hard-hit areas such as Sonoma and Alexander valleys in Sonoma County and the Atlas Peak region in Napa County.

Sonoma Agricultural Commissioner Tony Lineager said he had a list of 100 people who had requested access, which will be granted for “critical agricultural activities.” The highest priority were winemakers in the Sonoma Valley, some of whom have had limited access to their tanks since the fires emerged, and growers in the Alexander Valley, where cabernet sauvignon is ready to be picked and could soon turn to raisins.

“There are millions of dollars of fruit still hanging on the vine,” said Hugh Reimers, chief administrative officer of Santa Rosa-based Foley Family Wines, which had picked almost all of its grapes before the blazes erupted.

Overall, the vast majority of the North Coast grapes have already been picked, with estimates ranging from 75 percent to 90 percent depending on the areas. Most wineries have not been damaged, with about 10 destroyed or suffering major damage. More tasting rooms began opening their doors over the weekend.

Still, there are those who were waiting to be granted access, such as Igor Sill of Sill Family Vineyards in the Atlas Peak region. His winery burned down in the Atlas fire, but his vineyards were unscathed. He still has almost 4 acres of cabernet sauvignon grapes, the most expensive varietal in Napa County with an average price of $6,823 per ton, on the vines that need to be picked. Those grapes could be crushed at another facility.

“If I start getting on to Wednesday or by Thursday, then I can’t pick the fruit and I have to leave it on the vine,” Sill said. “I’m not going to be in the raisin business.”

Picked grapes are being hosed down on the sorting line to help prevent smoke taint, growers said. Also, Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark told all growers in a notice that grapes that have come into contact with flame retardant should not be harvested because they “are not safe for humans.”

Winemakers also were scrambling to ensure their crop wouldn’t be ruined during the fermentation process. St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa had 150 tons of fruit to be processed but wasn’t able to access their facility because it’s located in a cordoned-off area of Highway 12. It did, however, find another winery that would crush its grapes, said Michael Haney, director of membership for the Sonoma County Vintners association trade group.

One popular crush facility, Rack & Riddle Custom Crush, located near Highway 128 and Alexander Valley Road, has been closed to winemakers for the past week, co-owner Bruce Lundquist said. “As of Monday afternoon we believe the road was open and we plan to resume operations today,” he said.

At Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood, owner Jeff Kunde, his family and winemaker Zach Long have been working since Oct. 9 to ensure that 26 tanks of freshly crushed grapes would be properly fermented and turned into wine.

As the fires approached his Oakmont house, Kunde said he had a decision to make. “I could turn left and go to Santa Rosa and evacuate, or turn right and head to the winery,” he said. He turned right. “That was a fateful decision.”

The estate was relying on a large generator to power the winery. The skeleton crew was pumping wine from the bottom of the tanks to the top of the must to release carbon dioxide.

The risk of smoke taint appears limited as grapes are more susceptible earlier in the growing season and they have to be exposed to the smoke over a long period of time, vintners said. In addition, cabernet sauvignon, the largest varietal still on the vine, is noted for its thick skin.

Still, they are not taking any chances, sending grape samples to such labs such as ETS Laboratories in St. Helena. ETS was forced to suspend its courier service Monday as a result of the fires, the company said in a Facebook post.

Editor’s note: Story updated to reflect laboratories performing smoke taint analysis.

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

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