Wildfires again threaten business in California wine country

A plume rises over a vineyard in unincorporated Napa County as the Hennessey Fire burns on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of blazes sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A plume rises over a vineyard in unincorporated Napa County as the Hennessey Fire burns on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of blazes sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) (Noah Berger)

HEALDSBURG, Calif. – With an early harvest already underway, a wildfire a few miles west of John Bucher's ranch added new urgency to getting his pinot noir grapes off the vine. If flames didn't do any damage to the delicate fruit, ash and smoke certainly could.

Bucher hired an extra crew, and they finished the task before dawn Wednesday in the quaint wine country destination of Healdsburg, remarkably early in the year for a grape that is often not harvested until the end of September.

“It was just a race to get it done,” Bucher said, his voice hoarse after three days of almost no sleep and working in occasionally smoky conditions.

Fire has been cruel to Northern California wine country lately.

Three of the past four years, major wildfires have burned in Napa and Sonoma counties, charring vineyards, burning down a historic winery and sending plumes of smoke above the neatly tended rows of vines rolling across scenic hills.

While the majority of vineyards, winemaking facilities and tasting rooms that lure tourists from around the world have escaped damage, the perception of the area being on fire yet again has not helped business. Add restrictions on tastings and dining during the coronavirus pandemic, and winemakers say they are reeling.

“This year, you throw COVID on it, and what did we do to deserve this?” said Corey Beck, CEO and winemaking chief at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. "We really hurt more from the lack of tourists. That has been our Achilles' heel during this time."

Lightning-sparked wildfires west of Sonoma County and east of Napa two weeks ago coincided with the start of the harvest for some grape varieties. That's much earlier than devastating fires last year and in 2017 that erupted in October, when nearly all the grapes were off the vine and in the process of being converted to wine.