Wildfires in California aren’t new, but after back-to-back years of the most deadly and destructive fires in California’s history, it’s clear they’re increasing in both frequency and ferocity. Members of the winemaking industry, in particular, are on high alert, concerned not only for their wineries and tasting rooms but, most importantly, their vines. If the vines are destroyed by a fire, years of production will be lost, so many winemakers and vineyard managers are taking costly but necessary precautions to protect their vineyards from future—and most likely inevitable—fires.
Debunking the Myth That Vines Don’t Burn
It’s widely believed that vineyards provide a natural firebreak (they’re pumped with water, after all). This notion was seemingly proved in 2017, when the devastating Wine Country Fires burned through 162,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma Counties—they destroyed more than 5,000 homes but only a small amount of vineyard area. Some wineries completely burned down, including Signorello Estate in Napa’s Stags Leap District, though Signorello’s 45 acres of vines were left untouched.
But Phil Coturri, a California pioneer in organic and biodynamic viticulture who farms over 600 acres of vines throughout Napa and Sonoma through his company Enterprise Vineyards, has seen otherwise. “I believed that [vineyards were a natural firebreak] until 1996,” he says, referencing the small but mighty Cavedale Fire in Sonoma Valley, which destroyed 122 acres of vineyards. Then there was 2017, when Coturri says 93 percent of his clients had property damage, which included the loss of some vineyard, in the fires. The vines may not be easy targets for fire, but they’re not completely resistant either.
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According to Coturri, the likelihood of vines burning depends on several variables, including wind speed and how hot the fire is. Even if a vine doesn’t catch fire, irreparable damage can be caused by the heat alone (a year after the Cavedale Fire, Coturri says, another 15 acres of vines simply “collapsed”).
Coturri explains that vine canopy, unmowed grass between vineyard rows, and plastic drip irrigation systems are the biggest culprits in putting vineyards at risk of burning. “The majority of the damage I’ve seen during fires,” he says, “is from the drip hose igniting and the plants going off as wicks. A stubble out there burns and smolders and ignites the drip hose. The [hoses] start to melt against the trunk of the vine and kill the plant.”
There’s not much vineyard owners can do about the drip hoses, and they may not like the idea of cutting back their canopy, but Coturri says they should absolutely keep their grass mowed and suggests that all other plastic, like the pipes on the water tank, be replaced with steel.
Creating Defensible Space
Coturri says the biggest key to protecting a vineyard from future fires is the creation of defensible space. Start within the vineyard, he says, and then clear a minimum of 20 to 30 feet of defensible space around it and any structures. This process includes mowing any grass, clearing the underbrush, and removing some branches from trees to create separation between underbrush and trees. If the grass or underbrush catches fire, for example, it can flash up into the trees and take off.
Mountain and hillside vineyards are the most vulnerable because of their proximity to forested areas and because hillside ordinances prohibit many of them from being tilled (that is, having cover crop and weeds removed) between rows. That’s why Matt Naumann, founder of Newfound Wines, has been working tirelessly to protect his up-and-coming Sierra Foothills vineyard from fire.
The isolated 40-acre property, at 2,100 feet, overlooks the middle fork of the Cosumnes River. When Naumann purchased it in 2016, it was completely overrun with potential fire fuel, so fire management immediately became his top priority.
“For the better part of the last three years,” he says, “50 percent of my time has been dedicated to managing forest and taking out understory [vegetation], small trees, and branches up to 10 feet high or higher; [trimming] the canopies so they don’t reach the trees; and keeping grasses low by mowing them down. It’s about protecting the overall environment while also protecting the investment you put in your vineyard. If you want to make sure you’re safe from the threat of any wildfire, you’ve got to make sure you manage your forest.”
But the job is massive, time consuming, and worse, expensive. In July 2018, Naumann was fortunate to receive a recommendation to connect with Robert Smith, the owner of Smith’s Grinding in Calaveras County, which deals with reforestation management and fire safety. Smith has seen more than a few fires over the course of his 16-year career and warns that the recent fires have been “very abnormal.” While he doesn’t typically work with vineyards, he says that lately he’s “getting more calls than I can handle.”
This is because Smith has a special piece of equipment—a masticator. Priced at roughly $15,000 to $20,000, masticators attach to a track loader and essentially work as a mulcher to clear small trees and brush much more efficiently than a crew of workers could by hand. Acting like a composter, a masticator helps with erosion control—and vineyards aren’t left with burn piles. “The finished product is beautiful,” says Naumann. “It looks like a park.” Naumann adds that hiring a masticator service can cost around $1,800 a day, not including labor costs.
Another one of Smith’s clients is Ann Kraemer, also the owner of a remote Sierra Foothills property—Shake Ridge Vineyard in Sutter Creek—which provides fruit to a number of wine labels, including Yorba in Sutter Creek and Keplinger in Napa. “After these last few years, it just feels like it will happen,” says Kraemer of the potential for a fire to reach her vineyard. She turned the need to clear her vineyard into an opportunity to keep her vineyard crew employed throughout the winter months, but Smith and his machinery have been able to quickly make an extra dent.
There’s no doubt that these clearing initiatives are an investment—albeit a cheaper one than having to replant an entire vineyard—but Kraemer suggests that vintners can apply for grants, through organizations like the USDA and Cal Fire.
An Alternative Method
Jim Regusci, the owner of Regusci Winery in Napa’s Stags Leap District and Regusci Vineyard Management company, narrowly saved his 1800s stone winery building, home, and surrounding ranch (purchased by his grandfather in 1932) from the 2017 Atlas Peak fire by fighting it himself with a small crew. He says that he has since learned from his mistakes: “I lost track of the diverse agriculture. I was only focused on the grapes, and I didn’t think about the wildlands and wildlife corridors. We just got so focused on the vineyard that I didn’t take into account the simple things.”
Regusci has since created an eighth of a mile of defensible space around his property, but instead of machinery, and harking back to his family’s dairy farm roots, he’s brought in 300 sheep to mow the grass, and goats to clean up brush up to six feet tall. “I grew up with livestock,” he says, “but we never really thought about using them for land management.”
Regusci knows he can’t do much to stop fires from happening, but with these animals, he can do a much better job at protecting his ranch than he could before 2017. “We’re trying to slow the fuel source down before [a fire] arrives at the vineyards,” he says. “They’re [thought to be] a natural firebreak, but I’ve got the video to prove a fire will burn right through.”