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Glass Fire has now damaged 17 Napa Valley wineries!

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One week after the Glass Fire began its violent path through northern Napa Valley, one thing is certain. This is the most destructive fire America’s most famous wine region has ever faced.

The Glass Fire has damaged or destroyed structures on at least 17 Napa wine estates, a significantly higher figure than in 2017, when the Wine Country Fires affected six of the county’s wineries. By the weekend, with the fires still burning on both the eastern and western sides of the valley and the winds expected to rise, the danger was hardly over. Many vintners continued to fight the fire at their own properties, sometimes without firefighting aid. In some cases, they extinguished the flames, only to find the fire roaring back the next day.

More than 215 Napa County wineries remained under mandatory evacuation or evacuation warnings, exposing some of California’s most celebrated, highest-end Cabernet Sauvignon producers to potential catastrophe. The Glass Fire’s long-term consequences for the valley — especially the potential blow to tourism, crucial to the local economy — remain to be seen. But already it was clear that the fire had seriously jeopardized the quality, and in some cases even the existence, of many Napa wineries’ 2020 vintage, which the August lightning storms and lingering wildfire smoke had already imperiled.

“The toughest thing is that there just doesn’t seem to be an end to this,” said Justin Hunnicutt Stephens, whose Hunnicutt Wine Co. was one of the Glass Fire’s early victims.

On Sunday night, Chateau Boswell was the first winery to be seen engulfed in flames, along the blaze’s initial path on Napa’s eastern side. By the next day, Hunnicutt was gone, along with other properties in the vicinity like Hourglass, Dutch Henry and Fairwinds. (Many wineries in that area, however, emerged unscathed, such as Failla and Rombauer.) Higher on Howell Mountain, the primary winery at Burgess Cellars, which had only recently been acquired in a high-profile deal by the owner of Heitz Cellar, burned.

Soon, the fire had jumped across the valley, where it tore through the farmhouse at Castello di Amorosa and climbed into the western hillsides. Spring Mountain, home to dozens of boutique, family-owned estates, was hit particularly hard: Behrens, Newton, Cain, Flying Lady and Sherwin wineries had all been leveled by Friday, with significant damage registered at School House, Fantesca and Spring Mountain Vineyard.

“We thought we had massive defensible space,” said Flying Lady owner David Nassar, whose winery is named for the Flying Lady emblem that appears on Rolls-Royce cars. Going into this fire season, he’d been optimistic: He’d built the winery to be fire-proof, using stone and metal rather than wood, and had vigilantly cleared brush around the buildings before fire season. But all that preparation didn’t save his winery.

Meanwhile, new fires erupted back on Howell Mountain. “The head of the fire has passed through, but we’re doing constant patrols for spot fires and reignitions,” said Steve Burgess, the former owner of Burgess Cellars and a volunteer firefighter, on Thursday. Wood fences, landscaping with wood chips, debris piled up around homes — all those mundane fixtures were now becoming fuel, he said. “These little fires can skunk around for days and then reappear.”

Many wineries, however, were putting up an effective fight and had so far avoided disaster. Vintner Ric Forman stayed behind to defend his Forman Vineyard in St. Helena and for two days, he said, he expected to lose everything. “Only by a miracle did the winery survive,” Forman said.

Flames arrived at Howell Mountain’s O’Shaughnessy Winery on two different days, said commercial director Luke Russ, but the vineyard manager and winemaker stood outside the winery spraying it with water hoses.

The battle at Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, one of Napa’s most popular sparkling wine producers, seemed to have reached a denouement by Thursday. Owner Hugh Davies said that their prepping efforts had proven effective. “This year we went a little crazy with the brush clearing,” he said, “and sure enough, as the flames approached the central infrastructure, they slowed way down.”

But for many wineries in the western hillsides, the real struggle was just beginning.

On Thursday, “the fire came around to us very unexpectedly from the southeast,” said Pam Bergman, owner of Spring Mountain’s Bergman Family Vineyards, which is set to release its first vintage next year. Personnel from Cal Fire came to inspect the property, and a captain told Bergman to clear as much space as she could and have her crew ready with hoses. “You’ve got eight hours,” he told her. Sure enough, she said, by Friday morning there were flames 3 feet high. She was feeling hopeful that the property’s structures, including two cottages, would survive, but the situation remained active.

“We’re ready to be fighting this thing for at least another week,” said Stu Smith, co-owner of Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Spring Mountain, a producer of old-school, affordable-for-Napa wines including Riesling and Cabernet. The Glass Fire arrived at his property on Monday. He and family members spent the rest of the week fighting back the flames themselves — so far victoriously.

 

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