California Wine Country Is Being Rebuilt as Climate Change and Wildfire


NS. HELENA, California — Hanging block Cornell Vineyards On the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, just above the county line from this Napa Valley center, it looked green and healthy in mid-July as they should be in the middle of the growing season. But looks can be deceiving.

This particular block devastating forest fires It roared on the slopes of both Napa and Sonoma last September, destroying half of Cornell’s 20-acre vineyard, the recently renovated residence of Henry and Vanessa Cornell, its owners, and two other buildings.

At the edges of the vineyard, charred Douglas firs stand like impatient sentries as they await removal. The vines appear alive, but roughly 30 percent on the block produced no grapes.

The rest have thick drooping panicles, but the vines may simply move and produce grapes, but not the quality that normally goes into Cornell’s gorgeous cabernet sauvignons.

Evidence of destruction is all over the world Spring Mountain Region, the name of the appeal on the Napa side, and Fountaingrove District, the name on the Sonoma side.

All that remains of the houses are crumbling foundations with swinging brick chimneys. Hundreds of logs are planted on the blackened slopes, and dead logs are collected in giant log trucks to eliminate the fire hazard.

Erosion is a real threat here. The hope is that stumps with sturdy root nets will help hold the slopes in place when the fall rains begin.

But not all of the damage done by the 2020 fires in northern Napa Valley and adjacent Sonoma County is so visible and obvious. The consequences for vineyards that survived direct contact with the fires are yet to be determined, as winemakers affected by the fires are trying to navigate the 2021 growing season, unsure of what they are facing.

Wineries can be rebuilt, temporary facilities can be found, new vintages can be built, albeit at a high financial cost. But the loss of a winery’s vines—sometimes entire vineyards—must be pulled from its heart.

For the most serious producers whose purpose is to document a place’s distinctive character through wine, vines are nurtured like children in their infancy and bony, angular youth in the hope that they will produce balanced, meaningful wines for children. decades. Losing them is grief.

Heaviest damaged vines were removed at Cornell. Others were examined closely. Vineyard workers stripped the outer bark of the trunks of the vines to inspect the grapes. cambiumthe layer through which food passes.

Green color indicates health. But it wasn’t always clear whether the vines were healthy enough to produce the best quality grapes. Many of the vines in question were removed, but Cornell left one block intact as an experiment.

“We have removed a third of the vineyard and now we have to treat the rest as vine vine,” said Elizabeth Tangney, director of viticulture and winemaking.

Ms. Tangney said the vines adjacent to the trees were the most exposed to the fire and were visibly charred. Those without obvious damage are question marks.

“Was it fire or was it just heat?” said Mrs. Tangney. “Some vines look healthy but do not bear fruit. Will they produce next year? No textbook. We will write it this year,” he said.

The task was the same Newton BondA much larger property on the Napa side of Spring Mountain, where nearly 70 acres of steep, terraced vineyard blocks cling to slopes that curve in many directions through wooded canyons. The fires destroyed the winery, its headquarters and most of the two vintages aging in the cellars and all but five acres of vineyards.

As with Cornell, the fringes of the vineyard closest to the forest were clear casualties. Away from the trees, it was more difficult to assess the damage.

It was left to vineyard manager Laura Deyermond to scrape the bark through each block, observe the cambium, and measure the survival rate.

“I poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this and had to make a call as to whether it would survive,” he said. “The majority of the property did not survive.”

This includes Newton’s Pino Solo vineyard, a block that once contained a lone pine tree, a painting adorning Newton’s tag. The vines are green and look healthy to the untrained eye. However, they are no longer productive and will be removed later this year.

“The vines are green but in survival mode,” said Jean-Baptiste Rivail, Newton’s general manager. For all intents and purposes they are in a coma, unable to produce perfect grapes. “There is no longer a connection between the head and the heart,” he said.

A new block that will go into production this year will also be shot. The damage there was more obvious.

“The fire was so hot that the vines were charred,” said Ms. Deyermond. However, the decision to uproot the vines and start over was not an easy one.

“We’ve gone through stages of grief,” he said, “and we’re coming to accept.”

Looking down a valley from Newton, I could see a roasted brown vineyard. Cain Vineyard and WineryIt’s where fires consumed the winery and its yields in 2019 and 20, along with the residence and car of husband and wife Katie Lazar, chief executives of Christopher Howell and Cain.

Just after last year’s fires, I spoke to Mr Howell., told me that the bond is largely intact. It turned out that this was not the case.

“I think I was in denial,” said Mr Howell in mid-July. “Everyone wanted the vines to survive. We wanted to say that the texture is still green. We didn’t want to believe any of that.”

While he and Ms. Lazar were not fully accepted, as with Newton, Mr. Howell said he no longer denied the midpoint of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, though perhaps still negotiating. five stages of grief.

“Just replanting, that’s the priority, not rebuilding structures,” he said. “We have a business to run. We have people to support.”

Both Cain and Newton made arrangements for making and aging wine elsewhere. Cornell was already using facilities away from his vineyard.

Mr Howell estimated that it would take at least 10 years to replant the vineyard, a daunting investment in the age of climate change. With the combination of drought and heat waves, fires will continue to threaten the region. Why risk future destruction?

One answer may be in wines, such as the 2008 Cain Five, named because it’s a blend of five classic Bordeaux flavors: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, and petit Verdot. ’08 is a wine of perfect elegance, balanced and restrained, expressing the delicate aromas and flavors of purple fruit and flowers. Or the cute, fragrant 2016 Cain Five, the current vintage on the market.

“Why bother if the bond doesn’t have a particular personality?” said Mr Howell. “It’s a tough place to farm. There must be a reason.”

Andrew Holve, head of winemaking, said it’s a similar story at Newton, whose wines have undergone a stylistic shift since 2015 aimed at making the site more expressive and more refined.

A red Burgundy grape blend from the Spring Mountain vineyard, Newton’s Puzzle 2018 is more elegant and purer than any Newton’s hallmark strong wines. 2018 Unfiltered Chardonnay is fresh, tangy and textured, far from the richness and extravagance that was once Newton’s signature.

These may be Newton’s last full harvests for a while.

“2019 represented what we wanted to achieve with wine and what we wanted to do with viticulture in 2020,” Mr. Rivail said of the two lost crops.

Mr Rivail said that after the fires, Newton, owned by French luxury goods company LVMH, took three months to come up with a plan for the future. Aware of the ongoing drought and fire threats, they plan to build a new winery, mostly underground.

The vineyard will be replanted over 20 years with fire breaks and an underground irrigation system and bury the rubber hose lines, which will often act as a fire accelerator in traditional above-ground locations. As with all new vines, they will need to grow for at least three years before they start producing vines.

Forest management will be a very important part of the plan. Redwoods, madrons and manzanitas will be replanted, Mr. Rivail said, but not eucalyptus, which he calls “oily tinder boxes.”

“We have to admit that we are sensitive,” said Mr. Rivail. “Farming on a hillside is risky.”

The fires were a moment of reckoning at Cornell Vineyards, where owners Henry and Vanessa were at the peak of full production after 21 years of experimentation and labor. They were in New York at the time of the fires and were stunned by the extent of the devastation. For a moment they hesitated about restructuring.

“Oh my God, can we really have this again?” Miss Cornell remembered. “But we got over it very quickly. Our team was saying, ‘If you play, we exist’.”

Part of the reasoning was the potential of the property. Cornell cabernet sauvignons are dense yet delicate, with firm but fine tannins. The flavors are savory rather than sweet fruity, in the best tradition of cabernet sauvignon.

As with Newton, firefighting and forest management will be a crucial part of the rebuilding plan. With the accelerating effects of climate change, dwindling water supplies and the ongoing threat of fires, it is no longer clear that the region will be hospitable to ambitious winemakers. But the Cornells will try.

When they returned to the property after the fires, they planted a Tree of Commitment, an oak that showed their devotion to the property.


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