Point Wildfire Threatens Sonoma County, CA, Wineries

June 18, 2024
Dozens of wineries in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley are near the Point fire, which started Sunday near Lake Sonoma.

Jess Lander, Esther Mobley
San Francisco Chronicle

Jun. 17—Wineries in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley were thrown into disarray as the nearby Point Fire forced evacuations and threatened dozens of winery and vineyard properties.

The fire erupted around noon on Sunday near Lake Sonoma. As of Monday evening, it had spread to roughly 1,200 acres and was 20% contained.

Many wineries in Dry Creek Valley, a historic wine region known for Zinfandel that sits northwest of downtown Healdsburg, remained without power and were closed to visitors on Monday. Some wineries, like Chateau Diana, reported evacuating guests from tasting rooms on Sunday when the fire broke out. No wineries or vineyards have been confirmed damaged so far.

At least four firefighting crews were stationed at the home of Peterson Winery owner Fred Peterson throughout Sunday night. To protect his house, located on Mountain View Ranch Road, he set up a pump in his pool, in case he needed to use the water to battle a fire, and surrounded his house with hoses. Peterson had spent considerable effort during the winter clearing flammable brush from his property and nearby roads, and the fire crews told him his work had paid off.

"The hand crew boss said, 'That's great, you've got all these firebreaks and we can do some really good work up here,' " Peterson said. "That was nice to hear." The fire had passed Mountain View Ranch Road by Monday morning, with no homes on the road lost, according to Peterson. "I'm feeling relieved."

Woody Hambrecht, the owner of Grist Vineyard, said on Monday that the fire was 1,500 feet away from his house at the vineyard, and even closer to his aunt and uncle's residence. Hambrecht was in San Francisco when the fire started, but his relatives were able to grab some valuables from his house as a precaution.

Hambrecht is hopeful since CalFire chose his road as its "line of defense" to stop the fire from moving south. But he also called the repeated threat of wildfires the "new normal" and "pretty demoralizing." He suspects that some of his neighbors have lost their homes.

"It's an industry we all love," he said, "but there are these major events that make it harder and harder."

The timing of the Point Fire is significantly earlier than past Wine Country wildfires, which could be a good thing when it comes to the threat of smoke taint. While vineyards often act as a firebreak, heavy and prolonged smoke exposure can taint the grapes with unpleasant smoky aromas and flavors. (In 2020, many California wineries did not produce any red wines because of widespread smoke taint.) Research suggests that grapes are more vulnerable to smoke taint after veraison — the onset of ripening of the grapes when they begin to change color — which has not yet occurred in the growing season.

Peterson said he wasn't worried about smoke taint yet. His "personal belief," he said, was that it wouldn't become an issue until "you start seeing some berry softening," which would coincide with veraison. He estimated veraison to be on track for late July or early August this year.

Still, said Hambrecht, smoke taint is "totally on my mind" because he hasn't witnessed a fire this early in the season.

Like Peterson, other Dry Creek Valley wineries said they feel more prepared this time compared to past wildfires. "Every year we just get better at this," said Jennifer Higgins, winemaker at Lambert Bridge Winery. On Sunday, Higgins and another employee laid out fire lines, filled their water tanker truck and brought out a portable generator to power the winery — all tools they didn't have in 2020 when the Walbridge Fire threatened Lambert Bridge.

"It felt a lot more harried with that one," she said, "maybe because we're used to it now, we're prepared for it now and we've had outside training." Higgins said she's hopeful her team can move forward with bottling wines this week, as planned.

Hambrecht said he has worked with neighbors like Peterson to do a lot of "proactive work," like clearing trees and brush, and a few controlled burns, which appears to have helped keep the Point Fire from advancing on his property thus far.

Overall, there's an air of optimism among the Dry Creek Valley wine community. "Right now things are looking better," said Adam Sbragia, winemaker at Sbragia Vineyards. "The wind is blowing west toward the coast, but we are definitely not out of the danger zone yet."

Mick Unti, the co-founder of Unti Vineyards, said the air quality on Monday morning seemed improved from Sunday, and that he gave his employees the choice to come to work or stay home on Monday. (Chronicle meteorologist Anthony Edwards, however, said air quality is expected to deteriorate by Monday afternoon.)

"Not to be cynical," Unti said, "but this is nothing compared to what harvest of 2020 was like."


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