Most of Constellation Brands' winery/production facilities are in California including several in the worst-hit areas
Wildfires burning in Northern California's wine country for more than a week mark the deadliest cluster of fires in California history. At least 41 people have been killed and nearly 6,000 homes destroyed.
In the Finger Lakes region, where many are involved in the wine industry, it’s double heartbreak — for lives lost and property destroyed — and worry about what this will mean for the livelihoods of their counterparts more than 2,000 miles away.
Jim Trezise, former president of New York Wine & Grape Foundation, now head of WineAmerica, just returned from Australia and a couple of days' flight without much communication when he began to piece together details.
“I have been in touch with several close friends, who fortunately are all safe, but they said it was truly frightening and devastating,” said Trezise, who still calls the Finger Lakes home and travels worldwide as president of WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries.
“I believe that about 30 wineries have been destroyed, including some icons like Chateau St. Jean and Signorelli,” Trezise said. “Napa and Sonoma are two of the most famous wine regions not only in the U.S., but in the world, so this disaster affects all of us in the American wine industry, and we will do whatever we can to help.”
Victor-based Constellation Brands Inc., which has most of its winery/production facilities in California, released a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those impacted by the devastating wildfires in Northern California. This continues to be a very fluid situation, and our primary concern is for the safety and well-being of our employees and neighbors living in the impacted areas. We have successfully made contact with all Constellation Brands employees and verified they are safe. We are encouraging employees to prioritize their focus on taking care of their own physical and emotional well-being, as well as their families. As a precaution, our tasting rooms in Napa Valley and Sonoma County remain closed. We continue to assess the status of our facilities, when and where able. We are extremely grateful to all firefighters and emergency responders working tirelessly to battle the fires and keep people safe.”
On Twitter, @cbrands, Constellation announced using its new Disaster Relief Fund with plans to contribute $250,000 to support victims of California’s North Bay fires, and match employee donations 2-to-1.
“We have a long history in Napa. In addition to supporting our employees, we're taking action to help local communities #northbayfires,” Constellation tweeted Oct. 12.
“The situation in Northern California is heartbreaking. We continue to keep employees & all in impacted areas in our thoughts,” the company tweeted.
A Fortune 500 company, Constellation is a giant global producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits with operations in the U.S., Mexico, New Zealand, Italy and Canada. Worldwide it has 40 facilities, 9,000 employees and 20,000 acres of vineyard.
Most of Constellation’s 23 winery/production facilities in the United States are in California. Its 19 facilities in California include three in the worst-hit areas by wildfires, Napa and Sonoma. Constellation’s Bedford and Mt. Veeder wineries are in Napa, and Ravenswood Winery is in Sonoma.
On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a firefighting team from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation deployed to help fight the wildfires. A crew of 20 employees and volunteers left Sunday morning and is expected to aid in efforts for two weeks. All travel and administration costs will be paid by the U.S. Forest Service or reimbursed to New York tate, the governor said.
On Monday, improving weather, the prospect of some light rain later in the week and tightening containment of the flames were tempered by the first death from the firefighting effort — a driver who was killed when his truck overturned on a winding mountain road.
The truck driver, who had been delivering water to the fire lines, crashed before dawn Monday in Napa County on a roadway that climbs from vineyards into the mountains. No other details were available about the accident, which was under investigation, said Mike Wilson, a fire spokesman.
In the historic main square of the wine and tourist town of Sonoma, a statue of the community's 19th-century founder was draped with signs thanking firefighters who have saved the town from disaster. "The love in the air is thicker than the smoke," read a sign on the bench that displays the statue of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, which was wearing a face mask.
Just how bad is the destruction of vineyards and wine-making facilities? A number of reports surfaced this week putting to rest fears that all is lost.
Tim Martinson, a Cornell senior extension associate focused on viticulture, said latest reports indicate a lot of vineyards did not get scorched and the harvest was already in for many.
Martinson referred to an Oct. 16 Wine Industry network blog “Fires Won’t Destroy California Wine Industry” that mentioned grapevines' resistance to fire — they are full of moisture, especially at harvest season, and the ground around them tends to have been cleared of the cover crop that became kindling elsewhere. The blog also mentioned Napa and Sonoma counties between them having 900 physical wineries (not counting wineries that are brands without buildings).
“So far, fewer than 10 have been reported as destroyed, with some level of damage to another 15 or so — more reports of partial damage will come next week,” wrote W. Blake Gray of the industry network.
A press release from University of California, Davis campus, department of Viticulture and Enology, also allayed fears, saying in part: “It is important to note that by the time the wildfires started on Sunday evening, most of the grapes had already been picked. Estimates are that close to 90% of the grapes were picked although this number may vary depending on the location. That means that only a small percentage of the 2017 grape harvest may be potentially impacted by the wildfires and smoke.”
About the smoke: “Since most of the grapes were harvested before the fire, smoke taint for this harvest will be limited. Only the grapes still in the vineyard may potentially be affected,” the release stated. “There is no data, but we do not expect smoke to be a problem in wineries. Fermenting wines will be protected by the released carbon dioxide and finished wines should be sealed to protect them against any smoke that may enter the winery.”
Gray wrote: “In personal terms, the wildfires are an unimaginable tragedy, with tales of couples dying in each other's arms, and of people being inadvertently left behind during evacuations.
“Evacuation shelters are full. There's no other topic on the local news, and all of northern California is depressed right now. We all know someone who was personally affected. But in business terms, wine country will recover.”
WineAmerica’s Trezise said WineAmerica had scheduled its Fall Retreat for Napa on Nov. 9-10 and for the past few days has been deliberating whether to cancel or move forward.
“We decided on the latter as a way to show our support for our colleagues and the region,” Trezise said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report