IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pandemic, heatwave, wildfires: California's wine country crippled by disasters

“We have no power. We don’t have much water left: All the reservoirs were tapped into to try to save the property. We aren’t sure how we are going to have a harvest," one winemaker said.
Flames consume a cabin at the Nichelini Family Winery in Napa County on Aug. 18, 2020.Noah Berger / AP

SONOMA, Calif. — Harvest season in wine country should be a time when tourists flock to enjoy the food, wine and hospitality offerings of the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead, disaster on top of disaster is crippling local businesses this year.

Following shelter-in-place orders mandated due to the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 250 businesses in the Napa and Santa Rosa metro areas have closed permanently as of July 10, according to data gathered by online review platform Yelp.

That was before nearly 6,000 lightning strikes exploded across the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this week and ignited hundreds of fires, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) spokesperson Lynette Round.

Photos: Wildfires rage in Northern California

Several fires are burning out of control in the world-famous wine regions of Napa and Sonoma counties. The 220,000-acre LNU Lightning Complex fire has already claimed four lives, is 7 percent contained and threatens more than 30,000 structures.

Among the fire’s early victims was Napa’s oldest family-owned winery, Nichelini Family Winery. Thanks to extensive firefighting efforts and family members wielding hoses to help, the historic tasting room, built largely of redwood in 1890, was saved.

“Pretty much everything is burned out around it,” said Aimée Sunseri, the fifth-generation family winemaker. Even irrigation hoses melted with the heat of the fire as it tore down Hennessey Ridge Road and towards their 60 acres of unpicked grapevines.

Among the fire’s early victims was Napa’s oldest family-owned winery, Nichelini Family Winery. Thanks to extensive efforts from firefighters and family members, the historic 1890 tasting room was saved.Fred Madigan

And business was tough before the fire. Their tasting room was forced to close because of the pandemic, and then eventually reopened for outdoor tastings only. “It’s just like one thing after another… We are very worried about how things will be in the wintertime. We don’t expect things to change that much. We may have to shut down. How do we keep our employees?” Sunseri asked.

“We have no power. We don’t have much water left: All the reservoirs were tapped into to try to save the property. We aren’t sure how we are going to have a harvest. We haven’t even started picking yet,” she told NBC News.

In the winery’s 130-year history, the Nichelini family has never missed a harvest — not even during Prohibition. They are trying to come up with creative solutions to somehow make that happen this year — even if that means trucking in water and a generator.

“We don’t know if our vineyards have smoke taint or not. That is the next big question — are the vineyards okay?” Sunseri said. But she is determined to make it work — somehow. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure we don’t break our family tradition,” she said.

This early raging fire season is hitting wine country just as harvest was set to begin for many wineries. In the Russian River Valley, near the town of Windsor, Bricoleur Vineyards was supposed to have a grand opening of a new tasting room the first weekend in May.

“We spent four years in construction, landscaping, and building out a commercial kitchen. We hired Chef Shane McAnelly on March 15. But then, two days later, we entered lockdown [because of the pandemic],” said Bricoleur’s founder and CEO, Mark Hanson.

They had to cancel every single one of their planned 18 events for the year, events that would have catered to over 100 guests each and mostly benefited charities. While he couldn’t put a number on their losses, Hanson estimates it has impacted revenue by at least half.

“We spent four years in construction, landscaping, and building out a commercial kitchen. Then we entered lockdown,” said Mark Hanson, founder and CEO of Bricoleur Vineyards, speaking about his brand-new tasting room.Brittany Hosea-Small

They’ve managed to keep their entire 14-person staff employed and have transitioned to virtual tastings and food and wine package deliveries, but they’ve only been able to use their brand new tasting room for a total of three weekends. “We have been doing outdoor tastings since Memorial Day, five days a week. But now we have power outages and fires.”

The property lost power as the heatwave and lightning strikes pummelled the area together, forcing them to again close their tasting room over the weekend. And then came the Walbridge Fire — which has already burned 21,000 acres, is 0 percent contained, and threatens the cities of Healdsburg, Windsor, Guerneville and Rio Nido. On Thursday morning, as Hanson’s rosé harvest was set to begin, his winery, too, was under an evacuation warning.

“We have smoke and ash falling in our courtyard and around the winery barn,” said Hanson, who again had to close even his outdoor tasting room as the town of Windsor was added to the evacuation list and air quality worsened. “The health and safety of everyone is the top priority.”

It wasn’t the year they’d planned so hard for, but Hanson is looking ahead to harvest nonetheless. “It definitely adds a layer of complexity. The key is, we are only going to harvest if conditions are safe. With COVID-19, there is already a layer of safety precautions we didn’t have to do in the past,” he explained, referring to spreading out the workforce, washing equipment more frequently, and wearing gloves and masks.

“What’s supposed to be the biggest time of the year for all wineries this fall — harvest season — that’s the best and most exciting time to be in wine country!” said Hanson. “Tourism is down already because of COVID-19, and fires happening in Sonoma and Napa are going to make whoever was coming a little more nervous.”

“It’s like all the plagues are getting us. We cannot catch a break… we’ve lost the summer."

Indeed, tourism has been bleak in Napa and Sonoma counties since lockdown began in March. Compared to the previous year, Napa’s hotel occupancy was down 83.9 percent in April and Sonoma’s was down 62.4 percent, according to STR, a hotel analytics firm. Those numbers have improved somewhat in recent months, but revenue is still at about half where it was last year.

It’s not just beloved wineries feeling the impacts of this trifecta of weather, health, and economic disasters. On the Sonoma Plaza, the historic center of the town of Sonoma, signs reminding residents and visitors to “Wear a Mask” or announcing “You Can’t Quarantine Love” have new additions reading “The Love in the Air is Thicker than the Smoke.”

“It’s like all the plagues are getting us,” said Heidi Geffen, owner of quirky gift shop “Tiddle E Winks Vintage 5 & Dime” on the Sonoma Plaza. She left her shop on March 18 when the shelter-in-place order came into effect. “I closed the doors to my store and I had tears in my eyes as I walked out, because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Geffen said.

She has owned and operated the store for 15 years but now, business is down by half and she has had to reduce her hours, she said. She can’t afford to pay her employees, so she’s worked every day since April, save for one.

“It’s hard when people don’t come in. It starts to weigh on you. Why am I going in today? It’s really hot. I might see six people today. I can only sit there for so long,” Geffen said.

“We cannot catch a break… we’ve lost the summer,” Geffen said, as fires burn in every direction around the city of Sonoma.

For Geffen, and many other wine country residents who have survived year after year of deadly and destructive fires, every night now feels like a gamble. Referring to the Tubbs Fire in 2017, Geffen recalled, “I remember going to bed that Sunday night in October with the fire in Napa and thinking, ‘Okay, that’s Napa’ and then waking up and it was here.” The Tubbs Fire spread rapidly overnight to Sonoma, not giving many people enough time to escape.

And now, as the LNU Lightning Complex fire has exploded in size and thousands in its path have been evacuated, CalFire Incident Commander Sean Kavanaugh said in a press conference Thursday that they’re hoping for more resources, including aircraft.

“Make no mistake about it, we have a very large-scale incident here. Normally, even for us… we’re used to lots of resources, and that’s not where we’re at today,” Kavanaugh said. “With the amount of fires and large fires that we have throughout the entire Northern California, we’re just one small piece of the big, bigger picture there is in that bigger, bigger view, we have to share the resources.”

Despite the uncertainty and fire danger, Geffen says she’s taking it one day at a time and putting on a brave face. “People who are coming in, I think they come in to support me. It brings tears to my eyes, but that’s why you have to show up. You still want to put on a good face and be the best of Sonoma.”