A Trail of Charred Vines and Broken Dreams: Napa Vintners Assess Damage as Glass Fire Continues to Threaten Wineries

The danger remains high in the northern valley as firefighters try to begin to contain the wildfire; Cain is the latest winery confirmed destroyed

A Trail of Charred Vines and Broken Dreams: Napa Vintners Assess Damage as Glass Fire Continues to Threaten Wineries
Burned inventory sits in the remains of one of Castello di Amorosa's winery buildings. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Sep 30, 2020

Updated: Sept. 30, 11:45 pm PDT

When the fires came in the middle of the night to Spring Mountain, 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley floor, Steve Sherwin and his son Matt were not going to give up without a fight. They began helping fire crews, trying to keep the flames away from Sherwin Family Vineyards.

"Steve and Matt had been courageously up there all night battling spot fires, trying to save homes and further loss on the mountain," Wesley Steffens, estate director and associate winemaker at the nearby Vineyard 7 & 8, told Wine Spectator. "Their winery burned, as did the winery at Behrens, though other structures on both properties still stand. Fred and Andy Schweiger [of neighboring Schweiger Family Vineyards & Winery] were on the hill battling for over 30 hours," Steffens said. "Efforts like theirs, and the Sherwins', and a handful of others' show the incredible community we have."

Across northern Napa Valley, vintners are finding hope and sorrow and tales of bravery today. The winds subsided for a while, allowing firefighters to try and establish containment of the sprawling Glass fire, working to keep it from destroying more homes and businesses.

Their fight is far from over. Evacuation orders were issued Tuesday evening for the towns of Calistoga and Angwin, both of which lie in the fire's path. Today, orders were issued for parts of St. Helena as well. And winds are supposed to pick up again Thursday afternoon. More than 80,000 people have evacuated Napa and Sonoma counties so far. By late today, the fire had consumed more than 51,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, according to Cal Fire, the state fire agency. At least 200 buildings have been destroyed.

Angwin and Calistoga made it through Tuesday night. And some vintners have been able to return to their wineries and see for the first time whether their livelihoods are still standing. Some found good news. Others did not. And many others have been unable to get back.


Read more of Wine Spectator's ongoing coverage of the Glass fire, including reporting on damage to Meadowood Resort, Newton Vineyard, Burgess Cellars, Behrens, Château Boswell and more.


Spring Mountain

There is still limited access for vintners on Spring Mountain, on the valley's west side. "Unfortunately, downed power lines and trees are blocking paths up to property to confirm damage, so I don't have a verified answer yet," said Marston winemaker Marbue Marke. "It is not looking good, unfortunately."

Immortal owner Tim Martin is also wishing for the best as he waits for access to his property on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Immortal is really immortal, because, by the fire map, it went right over us for sure."

firefighters
Firefighters from the Sacramento Fire Department burn brush near St. Helena in hopes of creating a fire break. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Winemaker Chris Howell was finally able to return to his Cain winery, only to find devastation. All structures on the property, including the winery and homes, are gone, along with the 2019 and 2020 vintages. The vineyard survived.

"On Sunday evening we were alerted by friends and neighbors of a new fire, on our side of the valley, at the foot of Spring Mountain," said Howell, describing what he and his wife, Katie Lazar, saw. "By 8 p.m. we could see flames at the top of the Newton Vineyard, just one ridge and about a mile away from Cain. We certainly didn't want to go, but we knew that it was time to leave.

"Over the next two hours high winds drove the fire down into the canyon between Newton and Cain, developing intense heat and moving with alarming rapidity. Within two hours flames had consumed the beautiful redwood barn, built in 1871, and were climbing the hill below the Cain winery. For Katie and me, these were our last visions that night." They and the other families on the property evacuated.

Spring Mountain Vineyard's winery building and its Miravalle mansion were spared thanks in part to the efforts of vineyard manager Ron Rosenbrand. According to Dermot Whelan, the winery's head of marketing, Rosenbrand spent Sunday night assisting fire crews in defending these buildings. "Chateau Chevalier winery [dating to 1891] also survived due to its stone structure and slate roof," said Whelan. "La Perla winery [from 1873], the Draper house located at the summit of the property and Ron's own home on the estate all perished, as did many other century-old buildings spread throughout the estate."

The Sherwins posted a statement yesterday on their website: "Dear Friends, we are heartbroken to share the news that our winery burned to the ground yesterday. But, rest assured, we will rebuild and be there for you. We still have wine and we are still in business, so all is not lost. Thank you all for your loyalty and incredible support. It means the world to us, especially at a time like this."

Diamond Mountain

Many wineries reported partial damage or close calls. The team at Schramsberg posted a statement on social media on Tuesday afternoon, reporting that their winery had survived.

Others are still waiting to find out. "Being evacuated makes it hard to produce first-hand information, but we do have two crew chiefs in touch with us who are active on the mountain," said Michael Klopka of SummitVine. "I have only heard that our personal residence is still standing, but the condition of our vineyards is unknown."

Smoke in the hills
From Beckstoffer vineyards, the smoke in the hills was all too clear. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Klopka says they were planning to harvest this week, and the fruit is now a loss.

Meanwhile, the owners of Castello di Amorosa spent a depressing day of gauging what could be saved and what had been lost forever at their winery. Blackened bottles of wine lay strewn about everywhere inside a charred building.

"The fire came up from the north side of the valley and hit our farmhouse on the backside," said Jim Sullivan, Amorosa's vice president of PR and marketing. Sullivan said the farmhouse includes several offices, a fermentation room, a bottling line and holds some wine inventory. Still, the medieval-style castle and all other buildings on the property were unharmed. "Thankfully, most of our inventory is in offsite warehouses and the castle, but some of the 2020 vintage was in the fermentation room and likely gone," he added.

For now, he said they're scrambling to get back on their feet and get their systems back online so they can fulfill orders and resume business. "We're not out of the woods by any stretch. There's still an active fire near Bothe-Napa Valley State Park," less than a mile away, he said.

Calistoga

On the other side of Calistoga, it was a similar story. Third-generation grower and winemaker Vince Tofanelli said he has lost his grandparents' 100-year-old homestead ranch in Calistoga. He has yet to assess the status of his vineyards, which are among the oldest vines planted in Napa and produce grapes sold to prominent wineries including Turley, Chateau Montelena and Duckhorn.

Fairwinds Estate Winery
Blackened fermentation tanks sit in the Fairwinds Estate Winery. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Carol Reber at Duckhorn reported that their Three Palms Vineyard is in reasonable shape. "It's a huge relief because it was right in the middle of that highly impacted area," she said. The team at Sterling Vineyards reported some damage, but said they would not know the full extent until they could fully inspect it.

Hourglass winemaker Tony Biagi reports that they lost some buildings, but not their winery. "Unfortunately, we lost two structures on the property that were dear to our hearts," he said. "However, we are blessed to state that the winery made it through relatively unscathed from our vantage point."

St. Helena

Farther south, the team at Meadowood Resort were still assessing damage, but can confirm the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning main restaurant, the Grill restaurant and the golf shop all burned. Some guest lodges burned, while others did not, but they do not have a final count as of yet. Some good news: The reception area, croquet lodge, new pool areas, pool restaurant area and spa were spared.

Michael McMillan, general manager at Seven Stones, which lies just above Meadowood, says they just dodged a bullet. "We lost the guest tower that is located as soon as you enter the property, but no other structures were effected. It appears the cooling system for the barrel room stayed on the whole time, so no loss of product in the winery."

Flames rage near Merus
The fire could be seen from Merus Wines' vineyard above St. Helena (SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images)

"It was pretty devastating, but should have been worse," said Justin Stephens of Hunnicutt. "I can't believe it wasn't a total loss given what I was watching Sunday night. We fared much better than some folks, but still lost a hospitality building, crush pad, some tanks and a pump house. And there is no foliage remaining on 90 percent of the property. Pretty eerie."

Phillip Corallo-Titus of Titus Vineyards stayed and defended his winery and 50-acre vineyard with this brother Eric, tamping down embers as they landed. "The fire got pretty close to Titus," he said. "It really started getting close Sunday night. We had been watching it all day—it seemed pretty stable and seemed pretty far away and then between 4:30 and 7 it really picked up steam. A lot of homes were burning."

As embers rained down, he and Eric starting soaking their landscaping and the roof to their winery and an old barn. "The winery is made of cement and a little bit of wood so that was fairly defensible, but the landscaping kept catching fire around it and we kept putting it out. The winery is 100 percent intact, our vineyards are fine, but [the fire] was literally just right across Silverado Trail from us."

Winds in the forecast

What happens in coming days all depends on the weather. Record high temperatures are forecast to continue for several days, and dry, gusting winds are forecast to return tomorrow.

One of the biggest challenges remains that harvest is stymied and smoke continues to fill the region. Father east, on Howell Mountain, Elton Slone, president and CEO at Robert Craig Winery, reports the fire is not far away. "I think we will make it if we survive today and tomorrow. After everything else this year, it looked like we were going to be able to make some nice Howell Mountain wine in 2020 with low yields and great structure from the vintage," he said. "The problem now is that we are having trouble getting in to get the diesel in the generator to keep the tanks and barrel room cool."

Cal Fire's priorities are to protect the city of Santa Rosa and to keep the fire out of Pope Valley and the populated areas around it, according to Cal Fire Incident Management Team 3 commander Billy See. Unfortunately, there is still plenty of land to burn. "The footprint of this fire has occurred in between the 2017 Tubbs, Nuns and Adobe fires," he said at a press conference Tuesday morning. "This land has no fire history that's recorded."

It has already been a challenging fire season in Northern California. See said most of the firefighters have been working since the middle of July with little to no rest. "We are doing the best we can with the resources we have on the incident," he said.

Despite the fires and the smoke that have made this vintage more challenging than any in recent memory, vintners are still pledging to fight on. "Napa is a strong, tight-knit community, and there is a great love for the valley from people throughout the world," said Amorosa's Sullivan. "I have a feeling something really special is going to come out of this and there is going to be an amazing comeback."

—With reporting by Tim Fish and Kim Marcus

More 2020 Wildfires

See More

Wineries and Chefs Gear Up Charity Efforts for California Wildfire Relief

Oct 15, 2020

A Vintage Lost?

Oct 8, 2020

California Wildfires: How You Can Help

Oct 6, 2020

Napa's Winemakers Discover Scorched Vines and Close Calls

Oct 2, 2020

We'll Make It Even Better: A Q&A with Meadowood Co-Owner Bill Harlan

Oct 1, 2020

News 2020 Wildfires Disasters Fires California Napa Sonoma United States

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