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Fire season: Napa Valley's wineries dig their heels into lowering their risk
Wine Industry

Fire season: Napa Valley's wineries dig their heels into lowering their risk

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Winemaker Igor Sill

Winemaker Igor Sill in 2018 in front of the rubble left by the 2017 Atlas fire. In rebuilding his property on Atlas Peak, Sill has kept mitigating fire risk at the forefront of his mind, he said.

The fire began with a single ember.

Igor Sill learned that fact only retrospectively – after his entire winery was reduced to ashes by the wine country wildfires in 2017. Only the vineyards—natural fire breaks—remained entirely unscathed. Fire tore through Sill Family Vineyards at more than 80 mph, destroying the winery, a two-story guest house and a significant portion of the main house. Embers entered the buildings likely through vents on their roofs and burned from the top down, Sill was told.

“It starts in the attic, and then the entire house catches fire,” he said.

That’s actually how the vast majority of structures burn in fires, according to Devan LeBlanc, co-founder of Ember Defense, a wildfire defense company out of Marin County. There are typically no giant, dooming walls of flame to which buildings slowly surrender: all it takes is a single ember lodged in a roof or a gutter to set a winery or home ablaze.

The company recently did work fire-proofing Spottswoode Estate Vineyards and Winery in St. Helena, retrofitting vents and covering gutters.

Spottswoode itself sits on the valley floor and is not particularly vulnerable to fire danger, which is most pronounced in the valley’s hills, according to CEO and President Beth Novak Milliken. But a conversation with a New York Times photographer who stopped by the winery – who had, coincidentally, shot much of the devastation across Alexander Valley in 2019 following the Kincade Fire – got Milliken thinking about what steps the winery could take to protect itself from fire anyway.

“He was there on site with the firefighters (as Soda Canyon Winery burned down),” Milliken said. “He said what was amazing is that the embers from the fire just flew over and set the building on fire.”

Spottswoode at any given time has two full vintages of its cabernet sauvignon stored in barrel rooms on the property. Losing those vintages to a fire – especially one that could have been preventable – set Milliken into motion. Ember Defense retrofitted vents and covered gutters on all the property’s structures earlier this year.

“We can’t protect ourselves from everything, but we can take steps against this kind of fire danger,” Milliken said, voicing concern over low rainfall and a possible early start to fire season this year in Napa County. “Fire season is almost year round now. This is like investing in a generator so you can operate without power – it was something we felt was the smart thing to do.”

For Sill, who made the decision to remain at his property on Atlas Peak after the fire in 2017, mitigating fire risk has dictated nearly every step of the rebuilding process. Each of the dwellings are now built from stone with fire-retardant metal roofs; the burned remnants of Mediterranean cyprus and oak trees, both excellent fodder for fire, have been replaced with fire-resistant olive trees; and Sill has added 25,000 gallons worth of water holding tanks and a swimming pool equipped with a high volume fire hose.

“I’m at least three to four times more protected than I was (in 2017),” Sill said. “Having said that – the fear and the memory of the fire is foremost on your mind after something like this.”

Parts of Napa County saw less than half their average rainfall through the rainy season this year; some saw significantly less.

Increasingly dry weather coupled with two significant fires in the last three years have also made it especially difficult to procure fire insurance policies, according to Stuart Bockman, general manager at Peter Michael Winery.

“A number of carriers have pulled out from Northern California,” he said. “In light of that, I can’t imagine anyone not taking … steps (to lower their fire risk.”

The Kincade fire last year burned in the hills around Peter Michael Winery at the very northern end of Napa County outside Calistoga, Bockman said. But it wasn’t just luck the 600-acre property remained unscathed: the estate winery has implemented regular brush clearing and tree removal as well as the creation of fire breaks over the last decade. The winery spends in the neighborhood of $150,000 to $200,000 each year on forestry, according to Bockman.

Since 2017, though, the winery has continued to “step up its game”, Bockman said, especially as the owners – who are from Britain – have each year grown more concerned over just how dry Napa Valley summers are.

Peter Michael Winery recently installed a water line from one of the large reservoirs on its property; that line could supplement reserves inside the winery’s mobile water tank, which it purchased in late 2017. The winery also recently finished installing a pump and hose system that could disperse fire-retardant gel over much of the property.

Schramsberg Vineyards has also in the last year done significant brush clearing through the property that surrounds its vineyards and winery, according to owner Hugh Davies. It’s been a significant expense, he added – but Davies knows the risk of doing nothing.

“For me, right now, that’s the biggest fear,” Davies said of fire damage to his property.

Fire seasons have varied in severity over the last 10 years, he added – 2008 was bad, for example—but the risk has seemed especially poignant since 2017. PG&E has cleared brush away from power lines on its property; even still, Schramsberg recently procured a generator, knowing there will likely be public safety power shutoffs.

“Until we can get back to a moment where the risk of fires isn’t so great – these are things we need to have (and do),” Davies said.

Watch Now: Harvest 2020 at Schramsberg

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

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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