California wine country takes hit from fires but should bounce back

Santa Rosa (Etats-Unis) (AFP) –


Charred wine barrels hiss and smoke amid the orange embers of northern California's wildfires, and the smell of burnt alcohol from intact vats is strong.

Nearby, a tasting room called Le Chateau is a heap of blackened debris.

Paradise Ridge Winery is no longer a heaven for wine buffs.

Situated on a hill overlooking Santa Rosa, it is one of the wineries destroyed by fierce fires that broke out Sunday.

Many such wineries, some a hundred years old, have been damaged and part of the wine crop is threatened.

"I've worked in the region for 25 years but I had not seen anything like this," said Christian Butzke, a professor of oenology at Purdue University.

"People are in shock about how quickly this moved," he added.

The fires have killed 15 people so far and forced thousands to evacuate their homes. Nearly 150 people are unaccounted for and some 2,000 buildings have been devoured by the flames.

Ray Johnson, head of the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University, said the fires have had a major impact on the wine industry in Santa Rosa, a postcard-pretty part of California north of San Francisco.

The winery Stag's Leap Cellars, which shot to world fame in 1976 when it beat some French wines in a competition, had to be evacuated, and damage there has yet to be assessed.

Ray Signorello Jr, head of the Signorello Estate winery that was destroyed by the fires, said on Facebook that its staff fought the blaze overnight Sunday but had to pull back when the flames reached the main building.

It was the same situation at organic wine maker Frey.

"It looks like a bombing run here," said winemaker Joe Nielsen of Donelan Family Wines, speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Just chimneys and burnt-out cars and cooked trees."

The nightmare continued Tuesday evening for the residents and workers of the Santa Rosa wine country, which is hugely popular with tourists, as the fires burned on and on.

- Years to replant -

Butzke said it would take years to replant burned vines.

At this time of year most of the grapes have been harvested. But the best grapes -- cabernet and merlot, which yield the best and most expensive wine -- are picked later. So only half of them had been gathered, said Butzke.

Those grapes may be tained by smoke from the fires and thus unusable. This in turn will reduce production and cause prices to rise over the next two or three years, said Butzke.

But he said that overall the effect on the 60,000 hectares of vineyards along California's north coast would be relatively minor.

The winemaking industry accounts for 46,000 jobs and more than $13 billion in revenue just for Napa County. Nationwide the industry generates $50 billion in revenue and every year 3.5 million tourists visit the California wine country.

Butzke insisted California is "so innovative and quick to rebuild" that the tourism industry should survive.