While other stories have bumped California’s wildfires to a spot of lesser importance in a rapidly shifting news cycle, many areas in the state are still at risk for damage to property, homes, and businesses, and many people are still in harm’s way. There are currently more than 16,500 firefighters working to contain 23 fires burning across the state, with high temperatures and dry conditions making that work even more difficult. On Saturday, 27 new wildfires were brought under containment by California firefighters.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 8,200 wildfires have burned over 4 million acres of land so far this year, with more than 8,450 structures destroyed and 31 fatalities reorded. In Napa and Sonoma Counties, the Glass Fire, which started burning on September 27th, has affected 65,580 acres and caused the evacuation of upwards of 60,000 local residents. Many high-profile wineries have sustained damage, including Sterling Vineyards, Newton Vineyard, Chateau Boswell, and Castello de Amorosa; the restaurant at Meadowood Resort was burned to the ground.
This is the fourth year in a row that wildfires have caused damage, economic hardship, and human suffering in California Wine Country. The Glass Fire came on the heels of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which had already destroyed many vineyards’ entire crops because of the effects of smoke on the grapes. In the past several weeks alone, more than 4 million acres have been razed by wildfires not just in California but in Oregon and Washington as well.
As horrifying images of fire, smoke, and burning buildings flood social media and news sites, many wine lovers and members of the wine community at large who do not live in the Bay Area have been expressing feelings of helplessness on social media and asking if there is a way to help beyond buying wine from California, especially current vintages from wineries that will not be able to make wine this year. A group of public relations professionals who specialize in wine re-launched a GoFundMe campaign that they originally founded in 2017 in order to offer direct relief focused on farmworkers who are a vital part of the wine industry’s fabric.
The founders of this fundraising effort are Tia Butts, Katie Calhoun, Kimberly Charles, and Rebecca Hopkins. This year’s campaign will have a similar objective, supporting various regions’ most essential needs. The original team is now joined by southern California based Katherine Jarvis. As donations begin to come in, the group is is reviewing neediest organizations in order to best serve the community. The 2017 effort raised $97,000 in cash and about $10,000 worth of donated goods. As of this writing a little more than $6,000 has been raised towards a $75,000 goal. The initial beneficiaries include UndocuFund, which offers disaster relief in Sonoma County, and Puente, which serves San Mateo County. All donations go directly to the organizations with no administration fees other than GoFundMe’s processing fee.
Rebecca Hopkins, the Vice President of Communications at Folio Fine Wine Partners told us, “The mood in our Southern Napa Valley office is solemn and anxious. From winemaker colleagues conducting harvest while evacuated, to colleagues discussing housing plans for displaced family members and what’s in their “go bags,” nearly every conversation revolves around the fire. Heading to the office earlier this week, I was passed by a convoy of fire trucks headed to the front lines; it was a stark reminder of the immense sacrifice so many are making to help save the lives of people they will never meet. I hope our collective efforts can help contribute in some small way to help make the community’s life a little easier.”
Tia Butts, the founder and owner of a boutique PR agency bearing her own name who is now the Senior PR Manager at Treasury Wine Estates put a personal spin on the situation: “Living here in Napa Valley, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this tragedy all week. My family is safe here in the city of Napa, far enough away from the fires burning 15 miles or more up valley. But the tragedy is everywhere. Our next-door neighbor is housing his son’s family, as well as his son’s mother in law, as their homes have burned down in Angwin. It was challenging to meet the eyes of his granddaughter the other day, knowing they have lost everything. They had evacuated just a couple of months ago during the Lightning Complex Fires. During the last evacuation, I rescued one of her evacuated chickens that had escaped her grandpa’s yard and entered mine. I received a sweet hand-drawn thank-you note from her for returning her beloved pet. This time, I’m not sure if the chickens made it.”
One of the biggest unknowns at this point is whether grapes that are being harvested will be able to be made into wine that does not taste like smoke. Many wineries are experimenting with “micro-fermentation,” in which they make just a small amount of wine to assess whether the grapes will be usable or will have to be discarded. Quite a few wineries announced several weeks ago, after the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, that they would not be making a 2020 vintage at all.
Among those affected are Regina Bustamante and Scott MacFiggen, the owners of Sosie Wines in Sonoma County. Regina and Scott founded Sosie in 2015 and have since quit their former day jobs to devote their lives to winemaking and Sosie, where they make low to no intervention wines with organic grapes and native fermentations. With relationships they have built with outstanding small vineyards, they make their wines at Sugarloaf, a custom crush facility in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley. As of this week, they have no grapes to crush in 2020 and will not have a 2020 harvest at all.
Speaking about the impact of the 2020 wildfires, Regina Bustamante stated, “We are devastated by yet another year when wildfires have ravaged the wine country of Sonoma and Napa and impacted so many lives in these two great wine appellations. We feel for us and other boutique wineries that cannot have a 2020 harvest; we feel for vineyard owners who lovingly farm their grapes and this year could not sell them. One of the farmers we source from does not have insurance and will have to bear the loss himself. We feel for all winery workers who will now have less wine to make; we feel for anyone working in wine hospitality, since many roads in Sonoma and Napa are closed and the fires are keeping wine lovers away; but we especially feel for the people who work picking grapes and will have their livelihood impacted by this environmental tragedy.”
Explaining the direct effect of the fires on their ability to make wine, Scott MacFiggen added, “”When the 2017 fires spread through Napa and Sonoma, we were one of the lucky ones. We had already picked, and all of our fruit was safely fermenting in the winery. We did have to make some changes to our wine making process. We pride ourselves in using only native yeasts but in 2017, due to difficulty accessing the winery, most of our wine had to be inoculated with commercial yeast.”
MacFiggen continued, “But that was a minor nuisance compared to this year, when the region was hit twice, first with the LNU Lightning Complex Fires in August, which prevented us from having a 2020 Pinot Noir vintage, and now with the Glass Fire in late September and October. After the LNU fires we sampled grapes, micro-fermented wine and sent samples to labs outside the state, since our normal labs in Sonoma and Napa could not keep up with demand. We were still hopeful for positive results. But for us hope is not a strategy, since we pay crush fees whether the wine turns out to be defective or not. And since we are so focused on quality and low intervention, we can’t gamble with luck and hope the wine will turn out well. So, when the Glass Fire hit very close to the other vineyards we source from, as well as the facility where we make our wines, we knew it was game over. For now. We will be back in 2021.”
Addressing the higher profile wineries that dominated the news about the fires last week, Katherine Jarvis, President of Jarvis Communications, reminded us, “The victims we hear about on the news tend to be recognizable places such as resorts and wineries. It makes sense that news coverage would focus on these losses, as these businesses are the pillars of the Napa and Sonoma economies, whose names are recognizable world-wide. That said, so many stories remain untold—about families who cared for and lived on a vineyard for 20 years and have lost their home, or the seasonal worker who is now left without means to feed a family. These devastating stories are greatly magnified during a global pandemic, where gathering in an evacuation shelter poses its own risks. My hope in raising funds is that we can help some of these families get through their most difficult moment.”
Katie Calhoun, founder and president of Calhoun & Company Communications addressed the need for community-based fundraising during this time of hardship:“The wine industry is deeply connected like roots and rows of a vineyard. Competitors are colleagues and friends are family. I think it comes from the genesis of farming, where contracts are handshakes. From the immigrant women and men picking grapes, to international harvest interns, to generational winemakers, to hospitality in tasting rooms, to marketing and sales, to restaurants and retailers and finally to the consumer: the wine industry connects all of these people. And we are all being crushed with a great loss in 2020 by these horrific fires, they are touching everybody. Wine PR and marketing has been my 30-year career; I am a small piece of a determined California wine industry, coming together and fighting through the smoke, knowing we will come through the other side with strength and resilience.”
Speaking of the need to re-launch their GoFundMe three years after its initial founding, Kimberly Charles, who owns Charles Communications Associates, summed it up as follows; “When I first established this fund in 2017, we thought it was an exception versus what is now a sad re-occurring event. What these fires have shown me is why I moved to California and wine country, as the community and the kindness towards those in need is deeply knitted into our lives here.”