My father warned me it was going to be hot and windy during our visit to Napa—the first time my children would be seeing their grandparents in close to a year thanks to the pandemic. But the threat of triple-digit temperatures did little to dissuade me from packing our car to head to my childhood home. Late August in Napa is gorgeous—morning fog stretching across the valley floor like an ocean beneath our Howell Mountain home, burning off by noon to reveal scores of cabernet sauvignon vineyards. This time of year also marks the onset of veraison for most grapes, when green berry clusters begin to ripen to deep purple. The summer heat accelerates sugar development; cool nights preserve the fruit’s acidity and freshness. The valley buzzes with excitement as vintners test sugars in anticipation of the beginning of harvest for the region’s reigning grape.
Cabernet sauvignon crops account for 50 percent of Napa’s total grape production and 68 percent of its crop value. So when the temperatures spiked and the winds picked up during veraison in the weeks leading up to the 2020 harvest, so did anxiety among vintners. The morning we were set to drive north to Napa, my father called with a simple message: Don’t come home.
The first flash of lightning had struck Hennessey Ridge around 6:30 in the morning on August 17, 2020. Alexander Eisele was preparing for a day of work at his family’s vineyard, just over the ridge in Chiles Valley, when his wife and son came running inside. The two had been admiring the dramatic lightning storm from the safety of the front steps, and then they saw smoke.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
In wine country, small brush fires in August are nothing out of the ordinary; besides, vineyards have traditionally acted as natural firebreaks. Eisele thought little of the smoke as he drove to Volker Eisele Family Estate, where he spent the morning alongside a vineyard crew tending to the estate’s fabled old-vine cabernet, removing leaves and dropping any unripened clusters in preparation for harvest. It wasn’t until noon, after the Diablo winds picked up to 20-to-40-mile-per-hour gales over the neighboring Vaca Mountains and a Napa sheriff’s deputy arrived a second time to evacuate Eisele’s crew, that he realized they were in serious danger.
“That morning in the vineyard, we had been watching things progress, but we thought they’d get a hold of it,” Eisele says. “You don’t realize how quickly things can change, with these extraordinary winds and embers flying long distances to start the next spot fire.”
In what seemed like an instant, he was packing a bag and evacuating his 83-year-old mother from her home on the property as flames roared out of control and ripped through the family’s 60 acres of grapevines. By nightfall, the fire had grown from 5 acres to 2,400, with only 370 firefighters on the ground. More than 560 wildfires were simultaneously burning across the state, and many of Napa County’s fire units were already deployed throughout Northern California; the fire crews responding to the Hennessey Fire from neighboring counties were largely unfamiliar with the local terrain. NASA’s atmospheric testing would show that in the days following, Northern California had the worst air quality on the planet. Over the next two weeks, the fire continued to explode, consuming 317,909 acres and 439 structures and taking five lives. It eventually merged with multiple other fires to form the 363,220-acre LNU Lightning Complex, the fifth-largest wildfire event in the recorded history of California. And this was just the beginning of fire season.
Volker Eisele Family Estate’s Triangle Block—so named for its shape—which was hardest hit, is notable for its beautiful 45-year-old cordon vines planted on St. George rootstock, known for its heartiness and resistance to phylloxera, the aphid-like insect that attacks the roots of grapevines. This was the first time fire had severely threatened the 400-acre property in Eisele’s lifetime. His late father, Volker, an early and ardent champion of organic and regenerative farming, was passionate about maintaining natural balance on the property, which included cover crops in the vineyard to help prevent erosion and aerate the soil. This was an estate that did everything right—farming bio-sustainably, preserving the native oak canopies, protecting and enhancing the riverbanks and streams.
“My father was absolutely adamant about farming organically. He wasn’t going to expose our employees to herbicides or pesticides or have these chemicals run off into the waterways and creeks,” Eisele says. “For us, organic farming was established early on as the norm.”
The cover crops would prove to be a significant factor in the vineyard’s burning. In the blocks that were tilled, there was little damage. “The vineyards acted as a buffer in most parts, except on the steepest terrain with permanent cover crops to protect the soil from erosion. The cover crops drying out from these high winds were definitely a contributing factor toward the fire,” he says. The sheer heat resulting from burning pines and chaparral was another.
“When I returned to the vineyard the first time after the fire, one of the vines was burning like a candle, burning from the inside,” Eisele says. “I’ve been playing in this vineyard for over 45 years. To walk through and see that—I’m still a bit in shock.”
I’ve spent many hours in those vineyards as well. Eisele’s younger sister Christiane, now an emergency medicine physician, and I sometimes carpooled together, spending afternoons doing homework at their kitchen table and cooking dinner from the family’s vegetable garden. Those of us who grew up in the region set our autumnal clocks to the harvest season—that moment after the grapes entered veraison and began to sweeten also signaled the end of summer and a fresh start for the school year ahead.
My love for the area’s changing seasons, and for the exquisite wines our friends and neighbors grow, certainly influenced the career I’ve made as a food and wine writer and editor. But last year, harvest season was anything but normal. Six weeks after the fire tore through the Eiseles’ vineyards, my phone rang in the middle of the night. My parents were being evacuated.
At 3:48 a.m. on September 27, fire broke out on Glass Mountain Road, near St. Helena, and an hour later, my parents were startled by sirens, bright lights, and volunteer firefighters from Angwin Fire who evacuated them so quickly they did not have time to grab clothes. In a matter of hours, the house would be surrounded by flames as a Cal Fire crew from neighboring Sonoma County parked in our driveway to defend the ridge. The shingles on our home would be toasted, a hundred surrounding trees scorched and water pipes melted, but the house would remain standing while the homes of friends and neighbors across the ridge burned to ash. The Glass Fire would take an additional 67,484 acres and 1,555 structures, damaging at least 27 wineries and vineyards.
Over the past five years, Northern California has arguably suffered the greatest losses from wildfire in the state. Napa County fire chief Geoff Belyea thought he had seen the worst of it in the 2008 fire season. Then came the Valley Fire in 2015, followed by the Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires of 2017, and now the unprecedented destruction of 2020. “It was the culmination of the high temperatures, the lightning that came through initially, and the strong winds. The fire, it was burning so intensely,” Belyea says. “You put all of these fires on top of a pandemic, and it creates a lot of challenges.” Napa is particularly vulnerable, with its heavily forested hillsides, fire-prone chaparral vegetation such as manzanita and coyote bush, and wind tunnels created by low mountain passes, which combine to create catastrophic tinderbox conditions during fire season.
With a 2020 fire season that lasted from August through November, the entire duration of harvest, I’ve been processing the question of what this means for the future of farming in the region. When I was growing up, occasional spot fires were easily contained. After I left the valley for Los Angeles as an adult, a fire season emerged, with wildfires happening regularly in September and October; over the past 30 years, California’s fire season has extended by more than 70 days. Now, the megafires that come with climate change, combined with the altering of the land for hillside vineyard development, not only have made Northern California wine country one of the most vulnerable areas in the United States; they’re also threatening the lifeblood of Napa: cabernet sauvignon. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, only 46,903 tons of Napa cabernet sauvignon were crushed in 2020, compared with 81,810 tons in 2019—a 43 percent decrease.
Fire has always been a natural part of California’s ecology, and for thousands of years Wappo tribes burned the Napa Valley terrain to steward the land, mitigating fire risk to communities and nurturing the regenerative growth of plants and animals. Burning the meadows and oak savannas in the region helped create a fertile ecosystem that proved appealing to Spanish, Mexican, and American ranchers. In the mid-1800s, however, ranchers began removing valley oak trees in favor of more sunlight for high-value crops such as vineyards and orchards. By World War II, an estimated 99 percent of the valley oaks had been destroyed, according to Chuck Striplen, the tribal adviser for the California Fish and Game Commission.
“Valley oaks have a complex relationship to fire,” Striplen says. “They’re not particularly flammable, and when you burn under the oaks, the smoke purifies the canopy. The canopies then keep the temperature of the land lower.” The sheer number of species that are obligate to valley oaks, he says, makes them one of the most biodiverse communities in California, and cutting them down has upset the natural balance. Add to that the rabid rate at which humans developed Napa hillside vineyards in the 1980s and ’90s. “If these hillside vineyards aren’t completely organically farmed and lightly irrigated,” Striplen says, “you’re getting a lot of runoff of pesticides, fertilizer, and sediment coming into wetlands, which are supposed to be our sponges and filters.” With sediment in the wetlands, vegetation starts growing that isn’t being burned off. Without controlled or prescribed burns, it’s a recipe for disaster. “Our government has written Natives out of the definition of natural. Natural is not the absence of humans,” he says. “Ignoring Native knowledge, experience, and relationship to fire and species and failing to acknowledge the role of humans over the past 252 years, that’s where the battle has been waged on the climate.”
While Striplen believes we can benefit from Indigenous ecological fire practices, we first need to make better decisions about defensible space and natural fire patterns, which can be challenging to chart. He says that traditionally fire occurs within the same few weeks each September through October. But last year was different. Vineyards aren’t supposed to burn.
The first blocks of Spring Mountain’s 2020 hillside cabernet were picked as early as September 7, the same week that brothers Steve and Jim Burgess sold Burgess Cellars, the historic Howell Mountain winery across the valley that was founded by their parents, Linda and Tom Burgess, in 1972. The Burgess property, in Deer Park just below the ridge where my family lives, included a vineyard that had been farmed for more than a century, some of whose vines were 40 years old. Three weeks later, on September 28, Steve Burgess would be part of the volunteer firefighting crew defending Deer Park as his family’s newly sold 130-year-old stone wine cellar and production warehouse burned to the ground. For almost a week, the air was so thick with smoke that Cal Fire was unable to use fixed-wing aircraft to attack the fire. Once the skies began to clear, 747 VLATs (very large air tankers) dropped neon-pink fire retardant over Howell Mountain vineyards and woodlands, which coated fruit in places, making its way to water and soil. It would take 23 days for firefighters to reach 100 percent containment. Six months later, sunlight catches occasional shimmers of pink retardant in the trees overhead.
“In the stages of bereavement, we’re all pretty much still in anger and blame,” says Steve Burgess, the former president of Burgess Cellars. “Very few people are at the acceptance level. It’s hard to talk about and make decisions, whether that’s policy or actions. The PTSD is real. We all have to realign our goals for a new reality.”
While the Hennessey Fire ignited during veraison, the Glass Fire erupted just as the valley’s cabernet was reaching optimal ripeness, leaving vintners with the agonizing decision of whether to pick grapes that could be smoke damaged. Cabernet is much more vulnerable to extended fire conditions than chardonnay or pinot noir, simply because it needs to remain on the vine the longest.
Testing for smoke contamination is a developing science, says Anita Oberholster, a UC Davis enologist researching the impact of such contamination. Much remains to be understood about how smoke affects grapes and the resulting impact on wine quality. Even if smoke levels are low in an initial lab analysis, the acrid taste of smoke taint can develop after the wine has been bottled. “As the wine ages, the fruity aromas go down; the wine’s body gets thinner,” Oberholster says. “All of those things help hide smoke impact, so when they decrease, smoke can appear. Some wines can take up to a year before they show smoke taint.”
Smoke’s impact on the vineyard is even less clear. “The exposed vines recover pretty quickly. It closes its stomata entirely down and as soon as the air clears, the stomata open up, and its photosynthesis goes back to normal,” she says. “We have not sufficiently looked at frequent or excessive exposures. Does it recover at the same speed the second or third or fourth exposure?”
These are questions that Andy Beckstoffer, one of Napa Valley’s most influential growers, seeks to answer by addressing proactive solutions in the vineyard against climate change, including the increased threat of wildfire. While the vines are dropping their leaves and sleeping, vintners and winemakers are busy looking for ways to protect the vineyards from future fire events. Beckstoffer, whose vineyard holdings include close to 1,200 acres in Napa as well as 3,000 acres in Lake and Mendocino Counties, is the largest grower of premium cabernet in California. His most prized vineyards, such as the fabled To Kalon, from which Paul Hobbs Winery produces a $500 bottle of cabernet, fetch upward of $50,000 per ton of grapes, which is more than six times the average price for cabernet in Napa. (Merlot and pinot noir fetch around $4,000 and $2,800 per ton, respectively.) Beckstoffer says that more than the fires, it’s the threat of smoke he’s trying to mitigate. “We can do things around the vineyard, making sure that all the spaces around the perimeter are clear, keep those open spaces free of debris,” he says. “But if you have an open field of vines, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about smoke. Fire is part of the danger, but smoke is the bigger danger.”
Beckstoffer has the long game in mind for protecting Napa Valley’s greatest asset. For the past two years, he has partnered with UC Davis and Duarte Nursery in what viticulturist and researcher S. Kaan Kurtural has called “the mother of cabernet research trials.” Their experimental vineyard looks at rootstock onto which cabernet can be grafted and that can withstand extreme weather occurrences related to climate change by using less water and other natural resources. To be blunt, Napa’s economy doesn’t work if vintners are forced to replant with esoteric varieties that thrive in hotter climates. These crops simply do not command the prices that cabernet does. “Some are switching to tempranillo and other varietals,” Beckstoffer says. “We have a much better chance of doing something to protect and improve the quality of cabernet with technology, which is the way we’ve done this business for years, so that you’ll be drinking Napa Valley cabernet like we do today.”
Priyanka French, the winemaker for Signorello Estate, which was destroyed in the 2017 Atlas Fire, agrees. The Mumbai, India, native has been tasked with rebuilding the winery from the ashes into a world-class cabernet estate. “The wine industry has been famously archaic when it comes to discovering new technologies,” she says. “I haven’t given up hope for cabernet. We grow it, and we grow it well. The threat of climate change is real, but there are options, and part of my job is to figure out these challenges.” Her immediate focus is to modernize the winery, looking to experimental solutions to the problem of fire events both in the cellar and in the vineyard. A new cave system with double-entry doors makes it possible to seal off the winery—which has been reconstructed entirely from nonflammable concrete, glass, and steel—keeping smoke out of the cellar. In the vineyard, French is collaborating with sustainable viticulturist Steve Matthiasson as well as looking to other regions for progressive approaches. In Australia, she notes, vintners have had success with spraying kaolin, an agricultural clay compound, on vineyards before a potential fire event to create a protective barrier between grape skins and smoke-derived compounds; she is prepared to conduct a trial this year. “Last year, we had a plan in place. The day of the smoke taint, we sampled a lot of our blocks and had a baseline value for what clean fruit looked like. It gave us a lot of information about what to expect when fruit is exposed,” she says. “No one really knows; we learn on the job what happens during a fire. Napa has been hit with a lot of things, but the hashtag #NapaStrong really does mean something to me. If we put our heads together, we could come up with a plan that reduces our risk in the future.”
Dormancy, Steve Burgess feels, is the period when Napa could most benefit from prescribed burns with the least disruption to tourism or the environment. “Fire is bad for people, it’s bad for business, it’s bad all around,” says Burgess, who is a member of the Napa Valley Vintners and on its Fire Prevention and Mitigation Committee. He says the 2008 Deer Park fire was his wake-up call. After a vehicle spark ignited the hillside above his vineyards, he became vigilant about clearing brush. In addition to performing anywhere from 50 to 100 controlled burns each winter, Burgess began keeping goats as a green approach to brush clearing.
Prescribed burns are one approach Chief Belyea is pursuing. “There are a lot of complexities—whether it’s air quality, ensuring that all environmental documentation has been done, scheduling resources for the burn—and there has to be public education,” Belyea says. “People see smoke in the hills and don’t understand. There’s heightened sensitivity anytime there is smoke in the air.” Prescribed fire, he adds, is not without risks. “You’re still dealing with fire, and there are winds that can be unforecasted.”
Burgess believes that perhaps the biggest impediment to prescribed burns in Napa County is the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “They have utopian views,” he says, noting that smoke and emissions from the kind of prescribed burns practiced by Indigenous people are far less harmful and destructive than smoke from wildfires. “We have these totally opposing forces of Mother Nature versus regulation, and obviously Mother Nature is going to win.”
With the BAAQMD regulating controlled burns, which evidence suggests could dramatically reduce wildfires in Northern California’s wine-growing regions, does an adherence to orthodoxy potentially condemn California’s most storied crop to death by asphyxiation?
My first visit home during the pandemic was delayed until March of this year, when bright yellow mustard carpeted the valley, in some spots four feet high. The first verdant shoots were emerging from chardonnay vines at the southern end of the valley, and the frost fans were running. I cannot remember the valley floor looking so beautiful, so full of hope. I continued driving north, turning east up Deer Park Road on the ascent to Howell Mountain. Stacks of torched tree trunks were piled high on the side of the road; guardrails were burned out. I was wholly unprepared for what was not there. Where thousands of trees once cast dappled light over the road, there was barren land and open sky. An elementary school, its yard once filled with playing children, gone. I pulled into our driveway and felt overwhelmed by both relief and grief. Our house was standing, and our neighbors had lost it all.
Over the mountain in Chiles Valley, the shock of yellow lining the still-sleeping vineyards against rolling green hills is a reminder of just how resilient nature can be. Vineyard crews have begun mowing seed heads off the cover crops, so that wild native grasses can take deeper root and protect these precious soils from erosion and fire danger. At Volker Eisele Family Estate, the first budbreak emerged hopeful from one of the gnarled St. George vines, but in reality very few of these storied vines survived the fire. Eisele is looking to the future, to find a “new” old block with those first leaves and tendrils pushing out from the vines, ready to produce the next great vintage of cabernet sauvignon.•