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California vintners assess the damage


Worried California vintners are surveying the damage to their vineyards and wineries after wildfires swept through several counties whose famous names have become synonymous with fine food and drink.

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At the Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma County, workers were not sure the grapes above the winery survived a second night of the fires that have destroyed at least two wineries and damaged more.

“We haven’t been able to go up and assess the vine damage,” said Katie Bundschu, vice president of sales.

“We’re in the process of salvaging what we can.”

The speedy, wind-driven wildfires came as workers in both counties were picking and processing ripe grapes to make chardonnay, merlot and other wines that have made the region a global hot spot.

Millions of locals and out-of-staters flock to Napa and Sonoma counties every year to sample wine, sit in mud baths and soak in the region’s natural beauty.

The Napa Valley Vintners trade association reported that at least four wineries belonging to members suffered “total or very significant losses” while at least nine others reported some damage.

The group emphasised that it had not heard from all members, especially those in the most vulnerable parts of the valley.

About 90 per cent of grapes had already been picked, the group added, with most of the remaining crop thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon grapes not expected to be affected by the smoke.

Bundschu, a sixth-generation vintner, recounted a scary Monday night in which the flames licked at the perimeter of the winery but were beaten back by firefighters.

A century-old redwood barn and her grandmother’s 1919 home were spared.

Gundlach Bundschu is the oldest family-run winery in California, started in 1858.

She was eager to dispel reports that the winery had been destroyed, as was Nicholson Ranch winery, also in Sonoma County, which posted on Facebook that news of its demise was premature.

“The winery was in the path of the fire but escaped being engulfed by the flames. We have some damage to fix,” it said.

“The wine is secure in our cellars. We are cleaning up and hoping to have the power back on this week.”

Even wineries that were destroyed may survive.

Melted and blackened wine bottles littered the ruined Signorello Estate winery in Napa Valley, but its vineyard looked untouched by flames.

Spokeswoman Charlotte Milan said she could only confirm damage to the winery and a residence, explaining that workers had not been able to go on site.

She said the estate’s 2015 reds and 2016 whites were stored off-site.

The Paradise Ridge Winery in Sonoma County posted that it was “heartbroken” to announce that the facility had burned.

About 12 per cent of grapes grown in California are in Sonoma, Napa and surrounding counties, said Anita Oberholster, a cooperative extension specialist in enology at the University of California, Davis.

But they are the highest value grapes that yield the most expensive wines, she said.

She was optimistic that the fires will not affect the wines to come out of this year’s harvest.

Smoke would have to be heavy and sustained to do much damage and even then, she said, the harm would be limited to the fruit, not the vines or soil.

That means next year’s crop should be unharmed, Oberholster said.

Tourism officials said wine country is open for business.

Sara Brooks, chairwoman of the Visit Napa Valley Board of Directors and general manager of the historic Napa River Inn, said she has had some cancellations, but expects tourism to bounce back as it did after the 2014 Napa earthquake.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, “It’s tough to see these places you’ve seen your whole life on fire.”

– AP

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