GEORGE BALLING: The fires

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This is likely the most difficult column I have written since I started writing for The Press seven years ago. As most of you know Mary and I lived in Kenwood in the heart of the Sonoma Valley and what has now become one of the most devastated areas in a sea of devastation from the wildfires tearing through “wine country.” It is gut wrenching to watch and hear the too numerous harrowing stories from friends and colleagues. We know many who have lost their homes, the economic impact to the area will be enduring, and the tragic news we fear is far from over.

We have received many emails asking about the damage to wineries, loss of wine and how our friends and family are doing. We are grateful and humbled by the support. Our family is all fine, their homes and winery is intact. Of a more specific nature here is what we know so far.

The hard news, the true knowledge if you will of what has happened is very hard to come by. The national coverage is sketchy at best for no other reason than many of the areas are inaccessible. Mandatory evacuations are only part of the story. Many roads into and out of “the valleys” are simply not passable, trees and power lines are down everywhere so it is not possible to get to wineries to see firsthand what is happening. We have found the most reliable information is coming from the Facebook pages of the wineries themselves. They can update many folks at once, Facebook can be reached from everywhere and is not dependent on the specific winery websites many of which are down.

There are a handful of wineries that have been destroyed. Many of those that were rumored to have burned though right now are still OK. Earlier in the week we heard that Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Landmark and Kenwood had all burned, we are happy to tell you all are still standing with varying degrees of damage. The list of wineries that are a complete loss in the three county area affected are Signorello, White Rock, Helena View Johnston Vineyards, Vin Roc, Paradise Ridge, Ancient Oak, Sky Vineyards, Frey Winery and Oster Winery.

The damage to vineyards and the actual vines is hard to assess at this point. Some vines have certainly burned but did they burn to the extent that the plants are a loss is difficult to know, many growers and vineyard managers have not been able to get in and see firsthand the extent of vine damage so no reports are available.

This year’s crop was mostly harvested by the time the fires started a week ago Sunday. Sonoma was about 80 percent complete and Napa about 60 percent complete. The difference is primarily due to varietal makeup of the two counties. Napa grows more late ripening Cabernet and Merlot so much fruit was still “hanging.” Smoke taint is virtually a certainty, but beyond that it is dicey whether or not crews can get into the vineyards to harvest the grapes or if they will be left to rot. It will likely depend on the individual wineries and may not be known for some time.

Grapes that have already been harvested and are in fermenters or barrels in the wineries are likely fine, with some exceptions. Much of the area is without power with no time table for repair. When grapes are fermenting they generate large amounts of carbon dioxide as a by-product. CO2 is deadly in large concentrations and without power there is no way to ventilate it out of the winery buildings meaning winemakers and cellar workers cannot enter to tend to the wine at the crucial early stages of production. If they can’t get in the wine could be lost.

We have heard some people say that we should all be buying up cases of California wine as the prices will spike. I feel this is an overreaction. While you will almost certainly find wine from some producers to be not available for several years as they reestablish production a price spike is unlikely. The wine market is too broad based with wine coming from so many places that supply constraints are quickly addressed.

As we have tried to stay up to date on all of the news from our former home this week I was struck by one quote from a winery owner, “right now this is about people, we will have time to talk about the wine later.” Very true. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all in Northern California. Keep emailing or stop by the shop with your questions we will answer them the best we can and provide updates in this column frequently.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.

• • •

George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party a wine and table top décor shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. George has also worked as a judge in many wine competitions. His articles are published around the country and is the wine editor for Coeur d’Alene Magazine (www.cdamagazine.com). You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.

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