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First an earthquake, then devastating wildfires – and now extended power shutoffs. Napa’s wine industry has averted disaster before, vintners say, and it will again.
In fact, it’s because of those prior challenges that many of Napa’s wineries say that they’ve prepared themselves for this moment, in which 800,000 of PG&E’s customers in Northern California are without power. Wineries are doing what they can to stay functional – some employing generators of varying sizes and capacities, others working around the absence of electricity, doing things by hand or taking advantage of the natural light provided by daylight hours.
This is an important time for red varietals, harvested towards the end of the season. Silverado Vineyards is still bringing in Cabernet, according to President Russell Weis. Knowing what was at stake during such a crucial time of year, he said, the winery rented a generator for the season.
“It’s fairly costly, but critical for the quality of the wine,” Weis said, adding they’ll have the generator until late November. “Harvest (isn’t) over once you bring the grapes in – there’s probably even more work after you do. We want to treat the wine the way it deserves to be.”
Silverado Vineyards’ power ultimately stayed on during the blackout, Weis said, but if their grid were to lose power, they’d be “ready for it.”
Lang & Reed in St. Helena custom crushes their wine with Laird Family Estate, according to co-founder John Skupny. Laird lost power in Wednesday’s outages, as did Lang & Reed and much if not all of St. Helena, he said, but Laird was operating at regular capacity thanks to their generator.
“Yesterday wasn’t the first directive (Laird has dealt with),” he said, referring to PG&E’s announcement. “They have the drill down.”
His business will continue to host tastings during daylight hours, Skupny added, though he acknowledged that local businesses would suffer from the outage.
“This could have some ripple effects for a couple weeks,” he said. “But this is nothing like (the fires in) 2017.”
Harvest has traditionally been a time of heavy visitation to the valley by tourists interested in the harvest/crush process. Wineries with only limited-capacity generators were forced to choose between powering crush or their tasting facilities – not much of a choice, due to the time- sensitive nature of harvest and crush.
Rose Kapsner, who works to plan wine tours for visitors to Napa, said some of the wineries she works with had canceled. She’d scrambled to find open wineries, she said, and as of early morning Wednesday had convinced one to hold a vineyard tour.
“It’s going to be a chaotic day for the wine industry,” she said Wednesday, echoing Skupny’s prediction about related businesses taking losses in the wake of the outages.
Stu Smith, co-founder of Smith-Madrone on Spring Mountain Road in St. Helena, said he’d had to cancel the winery’s scheduled tastings for Wednesday, and would continue to as long as the outages lasted. Smith-Madrone has a small generator, Smith said, though it was not enough to run the winery at anywhere close to its full capacity.
“This is the high season. This is when heavy buyers come in – people who know wine, and want to visit, taste, and buy,” he said, adding that it was also a busy time for restaurants and hotels.
Some wineries were hosting guests as comfortably as they could without electricity, like Hyde Estate Winery, which was hosted its appointment-only tastings on Wednesday. Estate Manager Shannon Hyde said that the winery did not have a generator on the premises, but had brought in portable restrooms, ice for its white wines and a portable speaker for music.
Logistical concerns remained: Smith-Madrone harvested grapes on Tuesday that Smith said he’d wanted to press this week. Though they were able to do limited work – doing pump overs and punch downs with the help of their generator – if the outages lasted long enough, the winery would be “backed up,” he said.
“Almost all of our Cabernet is now fermenting – three quarters of our Cabernet Sauvignon needs to pressed within three to four days,” Smith said. “We have a few days of flexibility, but not (a week’s worth).”
PG&E sent crews to trim trees on the winery’s property in the winter, Smith said, wondering aloud why the county hadn’t reaped the benefits of that work. Frustrating, too, was the delayed appearance of the previously forecast 65 mph winds up in the mountains. If the utility delayed the outages, Smith-Madrone could have used that time to press, Smith added. But he was hopeful the winery would regain power soon, and said it would reassess its options in the case of longer outages.
Skupny said he’d rather shoulder a few days of preventive inconvenience than risk another fire like the ones in 2017. And a few days without power shouldn’t harm the wine, he added.
“Wine is not as fragile as we all make it out to be. It’s going to do its own thing no matter the circumstances,” he said.