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Lives of the Vines (copy)

Vineyard workers harvest Zinfandel grapes on Dunaweal Lane in October 2018. With PG&E now implementing safety power outages, wineries are looking at having backup generators to maintain their operations, particularly at harvest. 

PG&E’s power shutoffs increase during the time of year when wildfire risk is at its peak. It’s also harvest, when Napa Valley wineries must be functioning at their highest level—which is difficult to do without power.

“If you’re in the middle of harvest and you lose your ability to run your stemmer/crusher, your pumps and presses … those are really important issues,” Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery said.

PG&E began implementing the power shutoffs after it was determined the utility’s power lines were responsible for a series of devastating Northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the Atlas and Partrick fires in Napa County.

Customers who have their power cut should expect to survive a day or two on their own, the utility has said. Early last week, PG&E said its proposed outages could effect 124,000 customers in nine counties, including Napa and Sonoma. Ultimately, only 1,200 or so customers near Calistoga were cut off for less than a day.

Smith-Madrone has a portable 6,000-watt generator (about 8 horsepower) which can power a transfer pump or a sump pump for the winter time, according to Smith. It’s not enough to keep the winery at its full capacity. If they were to lose power during crush – something that hasn’t happened before – it would bring winery operations to a full stop.

“(Harvest) is a wonderful but extremely stressful time, and PG&E is adding to that stress by threatening to disrupt our power,” Smith said.

Losing power during crush is a worst-case scenario for Smith-Madrone, but for Tom Eddy Winery, which was without power the entire day Wednesday, it was reality, according to Laurie Hurst, the winery’s office administrator and finance manager.

Fortunately, the winery has a generator capable of powering the winemaking facilities, a necessity because of how often it loses power, Hurst added. They were able to continue operating through this week’s outage.

“We have everything set and ready to go for a power outage, so when the power does go out, we know what to do,” Hurst said. She estimated that the winery has been out of power “four or five times” since April. “If we hadn’t had a generator, it would have had a huge impact, especially crushing grapes.”

Generators capable of powering a winery at full capacity can be incredibly expensive. Tom Eddy Winery’s generator cost around $250,000, according to Hurst. Paraduxx spent around $300,000 for its generator, which can power the entire winery, according to Zach Rasmussen, COO for Duckhorn Wine Company.

“Paraduxx is seated at the end of two different power lines, so we had high incidences of power outages out there,” Rasmussen said. “We had a lot of wine there, and our sales team is there. We couldn’t bear the outages, so we invested in a generator.”

For smaller wineries, investing in an alternative power source like a generator is not so simple a choice. Even lower capacity generators for wineries can cost between $20,000 to $30,000, according to Smith.

Larger generators – anything over 50 horsepower – require permits to ensure they meet emission standards, according to a written statement from Paul Grazzini, an air quality specialist with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The minimum fee for a new generator is an additional $1,125, according to Grazzini.

“Thirty thousand for some wineries is a rounding error, but for us, it’s a major expense,” Smith said, adding that the winery’s existing electrical circuit would likely have to be updated to even be compatible with a modern generator.

Smith estimates the winery loses power about five times a year. It’s enough to make him wish he was less dependent on power lines – a direction he believes utilities are moving toward.

“I think in the future, we’ll start putting in solar panels and have switching units and be our own (power) supply,” Smith said.

Storybook Mountain Winery in Calistoga has used solar power for a decade, according to owner Jerry Seps. But the winery is still reliant on PG&E, because the power from their solar panels runs into the PG&E grid before it’s directed back into the winery, Seps said. Storybrook uses a diesel generator as its alternative power source, which it relied on heavily while without power for four months after the fires in 2017.

“During an outage, you need an alternative power source, because temperature control (of tanks) is important,” Seps added. “Will it shut down the industry if we use alternative power? No. Will it make things more difficult? Yes.”

Carol Reber, chief marketing officer for Duckhorn, described Napa’s wineries as “a pretty proactive, sophisticated bunch,” adding she believes most have well thought-out back-up plans for extended outages. Nonetheless, outages are “disruptive,” Reber said.

Outages remain a concern for Storybrook, which can operate fully on generator power, though less efficiently than Seps would like.

“If there’s not sufficient power, you’re not going to be able to make quality wine – and if you’re not making quality wine, that’s a problem,” Seps added.

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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Sarah is a staff writer at the Register, covering the wine industry.

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.