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Napa Valley wineries devastated by bushfires

Napa Valley wineries devastated by bushfires

Tens of thousands of acres of Napa Valley and Sonoma have been devastated by fires overnight.

There have been at least 10 deaths and 1500 structures lost in the fires, including vineyards and the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel.

Treasury Wine Estates owns wineries in the area, including Chateau St Jean and Stag's Leap. Some buildings at Stags' Leap Winery have been destroyed. In early local media reports, residents said that Chateau St. Jean had burnt down, but a spokesperson said: "The local fire crews and authorities are doing their best to work on containing the fires. At this stage, there is limited damage to our infrastructures and sites, however the fires are ongoing and we still have limited access to all of our different assets. The majority of our vineyards and wineries are not presently in the direct fire zones."

Smoke billows behind Chateau St Jean

TWE also noted on Facebook: "All TWE wineries are closed today, including Chateau St Jean, Etude, BV, Beringer, Sterling, Provenance, Hewitt and Stags’ Leap. Our focus right now is with our staff, making sure everyone is safe and secure. We’ll see you again soon."

The vast devastation over just a few hours made this firestorm one of the worst in California history, with its Governor, Jerry Brown, declaring a state of emergency.

Signorello Estate Winery has been confirmed as destroyed, as has Nicholson Ranch in Sonoma and Frey Vineyards, a pioneer in organic and biodynamic wines, in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley. NBC News showed video footage of the William Hill Estate Winery being consumed by flames.

In Napa Valley, 25,000 acres have burned in the famous Stags Leap area to the northern limits of the city of Napa itself, prompting mass evacuations. 

“I’ve been up all night; we were harvesting and had to evacuate,” Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock winemaker and general manager, told Wine Spectator. “The fire came very close to our vineyards before evacuation, but I think the winery is OK.”

Another blow for California's 2018 vintage

The region was just recovering from a heatwave last month that shrivelled the 2017 harvest, leading to uncertainty over both its quality and quantity of the vintage. 

“I’ve been making wine for 34 years, and I don’t think Napa’s ever seen this excessive heat at this stage of ripeness,” Pam Starr, co-owner of Crocker & Starr Wines in St. Helena, told the San Francisco Chronicle. The area experienced temperatures exceeding 43C for three days in a row. “I thought we were going to make it through without a lot of repercussions, but that’s not the case.”

Starr estimated some of her blocks have lost as much as 50% of their crop due to raisining. Particularly hard hit were Cabernet Sauvignon grapes which are left on the vine in Napa until at least mid-September to reach full ripeness.

“The extensiveness of the dehydration was something I’ve never seen before,” added Jasmine Hirsch, of Hirsch Vineyards in Cazadero. “It’s exceeded 104 degrees here before, but never during harvest.”

Winemakers were hampered in their efforts to harvest their grapes by a labour shortage caused by an ongoing crackdown on illegal immigrants.

"The big immigration concerns mean that even though the industry here employs only legal workers, the giant vacuum created by the crackdown has meant that many people that might have come for the harvest are now ending up filling slots in other industries and areas," Rod Berglund, owner and winemaker of Joseph Swan Vineyards in Sonoma County, told Wine-Searcher.

French harvest devastated by frosts

The crisis follows the French government confirming this year's wine harvest will be the smallest since 1945. 

Jérôme Despey, head of a governmental wine advisory board, told a news conference: "At harvests everywhere, in places where we thought there would be a little less, there’s a lot less.”

The French Ministry of Agriculture said output was expected to total 37.2m hectolitres – 18% less than 2016 and 17% below the average over the past five years.

The 2016 harvest was one of the smallest in 30 years.

Despey said he expected a 40% drop in Bordeaux, while vineyards in north-eastern Alsace, which produces mainly white wines, were also hit hard.

The drop in production was blamed on spring cold snaps. Vineyards report temperatures plunging to below -7C in some regions hurting shoots that were already well-developed because of earlier mild weather.

France’s total wine output fell 10% last year due to adverse weather conditions. Frost, heavy rain, hailstones "as big as ping pong balls", mildew and drought near the Mediterranean lead to the 2016 harvest being the worst in 30 years.

Production was down one third in Champagne, with wine regions like Burgundy and the Loire valley almost as badly hit.

However, for some winemakers in Chablis and Chiroubles, the loss was almost total.

"This isn't so much a harvest, as a hunt for grapes," Burgundy winemaker Jean-Jacques Robert told AFP.

The poor season came after a below average harvest in 2015 due to hot weather.