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Northern California’s Napa, Sonoma wine country forced to adapt to growing wildfire threat

In three of the past four years, major fires driven by a changing climate have devastated parts of the world-famous, tourism-reliant region.

This late September photo shows only a staircase remains at the Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, a luxury resort that burned in the Glass Fire in St. Helena, California. Wildfires have wreaked havoc with the Northern California wine country’s tourism-driven business.
This late September photo shows only a staircase remains at the Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, a luxury resort that burned in the Glass Fire in St. Helena, California. Wildfires have wreaked havoc with the Northern California wine country’s tourism-driven business.
Noah Berger / AP

SAN FRANCISCO — Harvest season in Northern California’s wine country is what dream weddings are made of: ripe grapevines and golden sunsets provide ceremonies an alluring backdrop that every year draws millions of visitors.

But harvest season now runs into fire season as wildfires have become a yearly reality in the region.

In three of the past four years, major wildfires driven by a changing climate have devastated parts of the world-famous region.

Last month, firefighters were still mopping up a fire that took a disastrous toll in Napa Valley when the region was put on edge again by hot, dry and windy weather. Thousands were without power when Pacific Gas & Electric utility cut off service to keep the winds from downing lines and sparking another inferno.

After seeing news images of burning wineries and people fleeing their homes, Ash Mintern of Tampa, Florida, postponed a romantic getaway to wine country to propose to his girlfriend.

“When I saw that people were evacuating out of the area, I didn’t want to take a risk,” Mintern says.

The coronavirus pandemic already was hurting Napa and Sonoma counties’ hospitality industry by halting wine tastings and large gatherings of any kind.

Closed wineries pivoted to hosting virtual tastings and promoting wine clubs. The region had begun to slowly recover in late spring, when restaurants and wineries reopened to outdoor drinking and dining.

Then, in August, a series of lightning storms sparked wildfires west of Sonoma County and east of Napa, blanketing the region in thick smoke.

On Sept. 27, a small fire that began near the town of St. Helena was quickly pushed by winds across Napa Valley’s verdant hills, burning everything down to the valley floor, consuming hundreds of homes before making its way to Sonoma County.

The two fires followed devastating wildfires last year and in 2017.

Lost or damaged in the latest wildfire were some of the area’s most iconic names: Meadowood, the Michelin-starred restaurant, was leveled except for its staircase and fireplaces. The flames devoured a farmhouse behind Castello di Amorosa, a winery that resembles a medieval castle, and destroyed more than 100,000 bottles of wines.

“I’ve been in the wine business for 48 years, and this is by far the most catastrophic, devastating, most horrible year,” says Dario Sattui, Amorosa’s owner.

Most vineyards, winemaking facilities and tasting rooms that attract wine lovers to Northern California have escaped damage, but the perception of the area being in flames threatens business across the region.

“When people see these dramatic pictures of wineries burning, they imagine that an entire region is destroyed and in ashes,” says David Pearson, manager of the Meadowood resort, whose owners plan to rebuild.

Scientists say warmer temperatures and a lack of rain are leaving plants and trees more flammable, creating conditions for wildfires to grow quickly and burn more intensely.

California’s fire season has been starting earlier and ending later. This year’s unprecedented season began with the lightning siege. So far, about 9,000 wildfires scorched a record 4.1 million acres. More than 10,000 structures have been destroyed or damaged, and there have been 31 fire-related deaths.

“Wildfires have long been a fact of life in the American West,” said Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer of the not-for-profit Visit California. “While fires may be worrisome, they do not cancel everything California has to offer its residents and visitors.”

An air tanker drops fire retardant Sept. 27 on the Glass Fire burning in Calistoga, California.
An air tanker drops fire retardant Sept. 27 on the Glass Fire burning in Calistoga, California.
Noah Berger / AP

Strong hotel occupancy rates after previous fires suggest tourism will bounce back. Two luxury hotel chains are opening in the region. Others are seeking permits to develop resorts.

But tourism officials in Napa and Sonoma counties recognize the fall has become an unreliable time to visit, so they’re encouraging visitors to plan for the winter or spring.

Online, Visit Napa Valley is promoting Cabernet season, which spans November to April.

During the fall, Sonoma County Tourism wants to focus on people who can make last-minute plans because they live nearby, president Claudia Vecchio says.

Some wedding planners say they expect to see shorter wedding seasons, with more in the spring.

“Rain is easier to deal with than fire,” says Janice E. Twomey, a wedding planner who had nearly a dozen weddings postponed or canceled this year.

She says couples from as far as Europe have asked her to plan their weddings for next year. She now recommends getting wedding insurance plans that include wildfire coverage.

Contributing: Eric Risberg