Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at podcast@vinepair.com.

In this Next Round, VinePair Podcast host Zach Geballe and San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley discuss the devastating wildfires in Napa and Sonoma Counties. The Glass Fire has been burning since September 27th, and during the time of recording on October 8, the fire was at about 66 percent containment.

As a reporter in the Bay Area, Mobley works to provide information regarding damages to the wine industry — as well as dispelling as much misinformation as possible. As a member of the press, she has been able to experience firsthand the destruction and devastation caused by the fires since they began almost two weeks ago. The fire, as of this point, has scorched over 67,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 buildings throughout Napa and Sonoma County.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the fires have caused further damage to the already affected tourism industry. Moving forward, wineries and vineyards may face further disadvantages as they evaluate the impact of the fires on their crops, as potential smoke taint may limit the number of vintages produced this year.

For more information regarding Mobley’s coverage and updates on the current state of fires in the area, check out Mobley’s weekly newsletter, Drinking with Esther, that can be found at SFchronicle.com/newsletters.

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Zach: From Seattle Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is Next Round, a VinePair Podcast conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to examine how we move forward as a drinks business throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Today, I’m talking with Esther Mobley once again. She’s the wine critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. Esther, I think you’re our most frequent guests now on the podcast. Congratulations.

Esther: What an honor! Wow.

Z: Unfortunately, as we were discussing a moment ago, we mostly have you on when things are going badly in California wine country. Maybe one of these days we’ll have you on for a purely celebratory conversation, but for now, let’s start with the basics. We’re recording this on Thursday, October 8th in the afternoon. What’s the current state of fires in the Napa and Sonoma area?

E: The only fire right now in the Napa and Sonoma area is the Glass Fire. It started on September 27th, and it’s still active. It’s still very much a threat to people and buildings, but it’s at 66 percent containment. It has burned, so far, over 67,000 acres. It’s destroyed over 1,500 buildings. It’s really wreaked havoc. The thing everyone in the Bay Area right now is praying for is rain, and earlier in the week, it looked like we were going to get a lot of rain that was going to really help the firefighting efforts. Now, it looks like we’re going to get a little, but not as much as we’d hoped. And next week it’s going to be hotter, it looks like. Everyone’s just kind of watching the weather conditions because the fire still could go in a number of different directions from where it is now.

Z: For those of us who were not in and around the Bay Area wine country in Northern California, all we kind of had to go on was scattered social media accounts — yours, and others, about what was going on. Obviously, the fire is not extinguished and there’s still danger but now that things are maybe a little bit more calm. Can you mention some numbers? Can we talk a little bit more about specifics? What did we lose? What is it like from the wine industry perspective? Obviously, many people who are connected to the industry, or who live in that area, lost homes, lost lives, unfortunately. But from the perspective of the wine industry, what was the damage?

E: The Glass Fire is undoubtedly the most destructive fire Napa Valley’s ever seen, in general, but also for the wine industry, we’ve confirmed 26 winery or vineyard properties that have had damaged or destroyed structures. So not all of those are completely gone. In some cases those are an owner’s home, but pretty striking numbers. In all the fires in 2017 that hit Napa County and Sonoma County, there were several all at once in Napa County, we only knew of six wineries that had been damaged. So this is really a striking figure. I don’t know if folks remember in 2017, on the first night of the Atlas Fire, Signorello Estate, which is in Napa on the Silverado Trail, was really the first iconic image to be seen with this grand winery on the most storied avenue in Napa, totally engulfed in flames. And this year, it was eerie. The first night of the fire, a Sunday night, Château Boswell, just a few miles up the Silverado Trail, was seen in flames too — a stone building, which you don’t think will burn — and it really went from there. A number of wineries clustered around there in Calistoga on the Silverado trail saw damage. Howell mountain, Burgess Cellars, one that just a few weeks earlier had been purchased in this really high profile deal from the Burgess family by Galen Lawrence, Jr., the Arkansas billionaire who’s buying up Napa properties like Heights. And then it jumped over the Valley from the East side to the West side, it landed at Sterling Vineyards, one of Napa’s most famous estates. It didn’t really do huge destruction there but there was some damage. It hopped over to Highway 29. It decimated this farmhouse, doesn’t really look like a farmhouse, it’s a big stone building at Castello di Amorosa. And then really the most destructive period of the fire was when it started creeping up Spring Mountain — a really beautiful wine growing district in the western hills of Napa, the Mayacamas Range. It seems like Spring Mountain hasn’t seen wildfires since the 1870s. Given what we’re learning about wildfire, it probably had really a lot of flammable material that was going to be pretty vulnerable and a number of estates along Spring Mountain, Barons, Sherwin, Cain, lost most or all of their winery, in some cases, entire vintages worth. But I think it’s important to note 26 is a high number of wineries or vineyard properties to have been damaged, but it’s really a small fraction of what the wine industry is there. There’s over 500 wineries in Napa County. We’re fine. You would see wineries right next to ones that had burned that were totally unscathed. These wildfires can move in a kind of illogical path, so it’s definitely important to note that just because a winery in one area burned, doesn’t mean that all the wineries in that area burned.

Z: I have a question that’s specifically about your job, because unfortunately, you are getting to be experienced at tracking these fires. What is that period like for you? What are you doing when these wildfires are burning? Do you drive up to Napa? Do you try and get as close as you can? How do you cover these?

E: That’s a great question. Thanks for asking. Yes, it’s a mix of reporting from my computer in San Francisco, over the phone, and going and driving around myself. Press can get beyond evacuation points. Most of the time, the police will waive us through the police barricades. They won’t do that when it’s really dangerous. In fact, last week, at one point I was trying to get up Spring Mountain Road to inspect some wineries up there, and it’s one thing when you’re on Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail where they’re pretty open, you’re not up a little winding mountain road, but sometimes, you’re driving up these roads and you’re like, “Well, if a tree fell, if an electrical line fell, I might not have another way out.” So anyway, I was denied access to Spring Mountain Road because the police officer said trees were still falling.
And I said, “That’s just fine. I’m going to turn my car around.” But it’s a mix. I don’t cover these wildfires alone. There’s a newsroom of 200 journalists. In a crisis like this, we have dozens of reporters and photographers on the scene. For instance, the Glass Fire broke out early on a Sunday, but it didn’t really start wreaking havoc on wineries until that night, which is when Château Boswell went up in flames. Monday morning, I was paired up with a colleague of mine, Chase, who drove up there, and I was on my computer, texting people wildly, looking at maps, trying to understand where the fire was, and with Chase and a photographer, I was kind of directing them. “Oh, can you go here? Can you see what happened there?” Connecting them with winery owners. And what’s crucial at this point, is most of the winery owners aren’t there, they had to evacuate. They don’t know what happened. Some people stay behind and defy evacuation orders — our fire agency does not condone that — and they can’t get past the police barricades, so we’re often in the position of telling them what happened to their property, especially in these early couple of days when few people have been back there and they’re relying on our word and our photos to learn what happened. It’s a bit of a messy process initially, you’re calling the winery to be like, “How’s your winery?” They’re like, “I don’t know.” Then I’m calling my colleague and I’m like, “Okay, go check out our Hourglass, see what happened there. We think we know the fire went through there, did it, did it destroy any buildings?” And then he goes and sees it and sees the building’s gone. But I don’t know what building that was. Was that the winery, was that the tasting room, was that someone’s home? So then we’re calling the owner of Hourglass, Jeff Smith, and being like, “Okay, here’s what we’re seeing. What is this?” Because this is what happens in these events: There’s so much misinformation, and people will say a winery burned, but it wasn’t the winery, it was some other building. There was really egregious misreporting by some other outlets. Everyone was saying that Failla had burned. Everyone was saying that Rombauer had burned. Both were fine. The fires came to both of those properties, right by Château Boswell, but didn’t burn any structures. Then, on Tuesday morning— this just shows you how popular and beloved Rombauer Chardonnays are — because I’m driving up and I get a call from my editor saying, “One of the most searched Google terms in California right now is Rombauer burning.” And I was like, “We think it didn’t burn. That’s what we learned yesterday.” And she was like, “Can you just go check? Can you guys see?” So I drive up to Rombauer and sure enough, the winemaker Richie Allen is on the crush pad doing some pumps, and he’s fine. We actually decided to run a whole separate story saying Rombauer is fine just because there was such a demand for that piece of information, and also to dispel other rumors. We have to be really careful about this stuff. We’re now at the point where pretty much everyone has gone back, even if they did evacuate. And I haven’t gone up this week at all, I’ve just been reporting from San Francisco, where I can get a lot more writing easily done than when I’m in my car typing and filing a story by texting it to my editor.

Z: It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. I have one more question on this, and then maybe we can talk a little about some of the other things that are going on. I think of this sometimes as you’re almost breaking the news to someone that a family member has died, if there’s been real damage. How do you do that gently? Do you feel like it’s your obligation to communicate, if you can, with the winery owner before it’s on the Chronicle’s website or on Twitter or whatever? How do you balance that?

E: I don’t know. I’m not sure how to do it the right way. It’s so hard. And to be honest, it’s really an emotional exhaustion that I feel while covering this stuff. And it hurts to experience it, to think about it. I cry a lot, especially when it’s a place that I have a connection to and have spent time at before and know the people. I don’t know. I’m sure that in every case it’s a little bit different how we approach it. But in cases where we haven’t talked to someone from the winery at least to verify what it was that burned, a lot of times we want to know if your wine is there. Is your wine gone? What does that mean? We kind of have to talk to them just for our own fact-checking purposes, and it’s tough. People have different reactions. I have to say everyone has been really kind. Sometimes when people are juggling these kinds of PR concerns, they are worried everyone’s going to think they’re out of business. In 2017, an employee of a winery in Napa, which I won’t name, was just screaming at me over the phone: “You can’t print this, that, and anything.” It’s hard. I don’t have training in this, so if anyone has tips for me, email me.

Z: I don’t think necessarily in the wine industry you think you’re going to have to do grief counseling for people, but maybe it’s part of the job these days. Let’s talk a little bit more broadly. This year in California, and maybe particularly in Napa and Sonoma, one of the big conversations attached to these fires beyond the immediate damage that a fire can cause — namely, destroying stuff — is smoke taint. Why don’t you just share with me what you’ve heard from wineries about what they think about this vintage, and how they’re dealing with potential smoke taint. What is the state of that in Northern California right now?

E: So the smoke taint conversation for 2020 begins in August, when we had this series of lightning ignited fires throughout California. It was astounding. We had thousands of lightning strikes all at once, and that’s not typical for our area or our climate. That’s when we saw these enormous complex fires breaking out all at once in really disparate parts of California. And, of course, it was bound to contain many wine regions. There was an enormous fire around the Santa Cruz mountains, which is an important wine growing region, and an enormous fire in eastern Napa, and an enormous fire around Healdsburg, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, there were fires in Mendocino County. Just take your pick, it was everywhere. The fact that those fires were so widespread and not contained to just one little area, and then coupled with the fact that this was August, this is early in the season for grapes, most of our big fires in wine country in the last few years have come much later in the season. People were estimating in Napa and Sonoma counties that when the fires hit in 2017, 90 to 95 percent of the grapes had been picked, so smoke at that point isn’t a major industry-wide region-wide concern. This year it’s a completely different thing before we even get to the Glass Fire. The end of August, this was already going to be a game changing thing because it was potentially affecting wine grapes in Monterey in the Santa Lucia Highlands, as well as up in Mendocino, and almost nothing had been picked yet. The result of that was that almost no one could get their test results for smoke taint in a useful timeframe. The lab that basically does all the testing here was showing over a month at a certain point — and we won’t even get into the fact that those tests may be unreliable on their own because there’s so little information about smoke taint available. It’s a whole other conversation for another time. People were sending their samples to Australia and Canada and just trying to get a sense of what was happening. For a lot of people, it already wasn’t looking good, even before the Glass Fire hit. A number of winemakers had shared with me that they were planning to make no wine or almost no wine, or in some cases, no red wine in 2020. The number of people who are sharing that sort of information has only increased in the last two weeks. I think the idiom to use would be that it was the nail in the coffin. Philippe Melka, the winemaker who consults for a lot of wineries in Napa and Sonoma, told Bloomberg that he thinks 80 percent of Napa Cabernet won’t be made this year. I spoke with another industry source this morning, because I’m writing about this, who thinks that’s high. But it’s way too soon to know for now. These decisions are still being made in real time. And in addition, there’s going to be a lot of grapes that get picked that then the decision is going to get made later on about whether to ultimately sell it as wine under its original purpose. If we want to come up with a percentage, we’re not going to be able to do that right now. It’s going to be a little ways down the road. But the impact is significant, I think that’s clear. It’s scary. I mean, there’s a lot we could say about it. It’s okay. Coming off of a couple of really ample vintages, a lot of wineries probably have more wine from 2018 and 2019 than would be typical. And they’re going to hope to weather it through. We have this whole oversupply grape situation and it actually may help balance out the overall. But it’s sad. And a lot of these small growers are in a really tough position, especially if they don’t have crop insurance. A lot of small wineries are in a tough position. They’re just not going to have any wine to sell this year. And it really varies region by region, grape vineyard by grape vineyard. I don’t mean to say if you see a bottle of 2020 wine on the shelf in a couple of years, you should assume it’s a problem, but I think we’re seeing a big loss.

Z: I don’t want to get too deep into this smoke taint conversation but for listeners who might not be as familiar, one of the big problems in assessing the risk of smoke taint is it’s not really apparent in the wine until well after fermentation. You can test for it, as Esther mentioned, the tests are kind of a questionable utility, but the big problem is it’s not like you can crush the grape and know this is smoke tainted. So I think a lot of wineries are faced with this challenge of “Do we start making the wine and then end up with a product that is unsellable and have put all the time and capital into getting it to that point, or do we just cut our losses now?” That’s my sense, is that what you get, too?

E: Yeah. I mean, there’s definitely some cases where you can perceive the smoke in the grapes, themselves. Many of the compounds get volatilized during fermentation, that’s why fermentation is important. Some of them then absolutely reveal themselves much later on down the road. People think enzymes in your mouth free up some of these bound compounds but part of the issue, we won’t get too far into this, we probably don’t know all of the compounds that are contributing to this. While the labs can test for a handful of them, about eight of them, there are probably others that exist that we don’t even know to test for. A lot of these compounds, especially the two main ones, glycol and formetha glycol, occur naturally in wine grapes, so when you get a number back you’re like, “Well, what does that number mean?” Because there was some number that existed in the grapes’ ideal state. And, for instance, the ETS recommends that people don’t even bother submitting Syrah grapes or wine for smoke taint samples, because Syrah naturally has relatively high levels of glycol and if you get a test back you’re not going to know if it’s just Syrah, or if it’s smoky Syrah. What needs to happen is we need to establish a database of baselines. We need to know what is a normal level of these compounds in Sonoma County, or even just the North Coast, and then you can compare test results against that. Australia has a similar type of database, but we just need to start doing that. It takes time, years really, to get something good, but people just don’t have those baselines right now.

Z: These fires have been hugely damaging. And, of course, they’re coming on top of a pandemic which has not done favors to parts of the California wine industry that are, to some extent, tourism-dependent, but places like Napa and Sonoma are more famously tourism-dependent than certain other parts of the state. Setting aside the general pandemic for the time being, I know there was concern in 2017 that people would not come visit because they were afraid of the fires, even long after they had been extinguished. What is there, whether it’s from wineries or from the hospitality industry, that exists to support and capture some of that tourism and some of the damage that was done to those kinds of establishments as well? How are people looking at moving forward with this sort of tourism industry that’s attached to these wine regions?

E: For a story I was working on, I happened to talk earlier this week to Lindsey Gallagher, the president of Visit Napa Valley, the tourism board there, and I was asking about 2017. It sounds like in 2017, they recovered pretty quickly from the 2017 fires — tourism wise. She said that by December of 2017, three months after the fires, hotel occupancy was up 7 percent over the previous year’s same period. I think some people have a kind of short memory for these things. There have been people in Napa Valley at tasting rooms this whole time. I think if you had planned a trip, you don’t just stay in your hotel room once you’re there, people are going out and about, people have been out and about in the smoky air. Lindsay also mentioned that Covid in the early months of the shutdown was a huge blow for tourism, which is the second largest industry in Napa after wine. But their hotel occupancy right now is around 50 percent. That’s not great for them, but that’s not 0 percent. There’s a lot at stake here. If a place like Napa or Sonoma were, over time, to become less of an attractive tourist destination, that would be a huge shift to these economies, to the jobs there, to the kind of way these places feel. Right now at the Chronicle, we’re running a lot of stories along the lines of: “Is everyone leaving California? Have people just had enough?” And a couple of my colleagues wrote a great article this week about residents of Santa Rosa, which is the biggest city in Sonoma County. They’ve just been here hammered by fire for the last few years. It’s awful. I can imagine homeowners are not going to deal with this anymore. We’re definitely seeing some form of that just from residents, but tourism is a big part of who these regions are and how people earn their money.

Z: And then to come back to the wineries, specifically, for a minute here: You don’t have to give specifics unless you care to, but do most of these wineries have some form of insurance? Is rebuilding going to be an option or are they screwed, for lack of a lack of a better word?

E: The wineries that have been burned or damaged in Napa, if we look at where they are, these are high end neighborhoods in Napa. These are wealthy areas, for the most part. Land costs a lot. These are wineries producing relatively expensive wine. That’s not to say everyone’s a billionaire who owns these wineries. But there’s a lot of multigenerational, longtime family-owned properties that have been affected by this. And I think things are tough for them. The insurance question is interesting. I don’t really know the full answer to it. One vendor on Spring Mountain whose brand is pretty new, she’s just about to release her first vintage this year. She’s only had it for a few years. She said that fire insurance quoted her $120,000 a year as her premium, for fire insurance. So that’s something that a lot of folks just couldn’t deal with. And this is for a winery rebuilding their building due to fire. The question of crop insurance is a whole other thing. The purpose we’re considering here is for grape growers whose fruit is unable to be sold to wineries due to smoke taint reasons. I had some interesting conversations about that today. I’m also writing about that, but rates of having crop insurance, I’ve been told by industry experts, are relatively low.
The federal government does subsidize it to some degree. It’s part of the farm bill. And I think, gosh, if the last few years haven’t been a wake up call, I think it’s going to become much more important. And, in fact, a lot of wineries may start requiring growers whose fruit they buy to have crop insurance, because it’s not good for the wineries either. If these growers are thrown into total fines, essential catastrophe, the wineries may be on the hook for things. It’s a complicated issue. There may be federal money coming, there’s disaster relief aid that has come for people who have been put in a precarious position due to wildfire. Congressman Mike Thompson’s office told me he’s working on that. We’ll see what happens. But how do you fix this problem? It’s a combination of wildfire being a natural part of our environment, and of manmade climate change. We know those two things. We know that somehow, the way we’ve settled these areas, wild land, urban interface, whatever you want to call it, has created new problems. But also there are problems that are much deeper. I don’t even want to go any further, because I’m certainly not the ultimate expert, but this is a moment for the wine industry and a moment for the whole West Coast to re-examine how we live in the places we live. What we can do to prevent these catastrophic losses. And the wine industry can’t prevent wildfire, but there have to be ways we come up with mitigating the huge consequences of it for people.

Z: Esther, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. For those of you who aren’t already following her on Twitter, she’s an incredible resource, not just for crises like fires but just general thoughts on wine. And, you can certainly read her at the San Francisco Chronicle. You can subscribe to her newsletter. What is it, Esther?

E: Drinking with Esther, and you can find it at SFchronicle.com/newsletters. It’s totally free.

Z: Yes, that’s a great read. And, again, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And, like I said, you and I will talk about California wine in a much more positive, uplifting fashion one of these days. I promise.

E: Well, I hope so. There’s a lot of good things going on here, too. And thanks so much for having me on, Zach. I always enjoy it.

Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.