Comeback Story

How Fire Has Shaped California’s Wine Industry

The wildfires in Napa and Sonoma are only the most recent fires to hurt the state’s wineries.

For 10 long days Jeff Morgan did not know the fate of one of his vineyards in Sonoma County.

Morgan, the co-owner of Covenant Wines in Berkeley, had spent part of Sunday, Oct. 8, at the Kenwood-area vineyard, preparing to bring his crew in the next day to pick the Petit Verdot grapes still hanging on the vines. That never happened, as multiple fires ravaged Sonoma and Napa, killing at least 23 people in those two counties, destroying almost 6,000 structures, and causing billions in damage. The fires, now in their second week despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters, have destroyed or badly damaged about 22 wineries.

“We lost four tons of Petit Verdot,” said Morgan early this week. “We were scheduled to pick it last Monday morning but, of course, we could not get to the vineyard. That’s about $100,000 worth of wine.”

The scenes of devastation coming out of the massive fire zone, which stretches across more than 105,000 acres in one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions, might make wine drinkers despair. Tasting rooms with views of rolling grapevines have burned to the ground. Barrels of aging wine have burst, bottles have exploded, and the red grapes still sitting on the vines have shriveled into raisins.

But the wine industry will rebound. The history of wine in California, it turns out, is inextricably bound up with fire. From the time wine became a commercial enterprise in Los Angeles in the 1840s to today, fires have affected various parts of the industry. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed about 12 million to 15 million gallons of wine, approximately 60 million to 75 million bottles, but had no damaging long-term effect. A 2005 arson fire destroyed vintages of about 90 California wineries. Even though 4.5 million bottles worth about $250 million were ruined, only a few wineries were put out of business because of the crime. The California wine business has recovered every time.

The history of wine in California, it turns out, is inextricably bound up with fire.

“Resiliency is a trait of the wine industry—from the battles with phylloxera, the San Francisco 1906 earthquake and fire, Prohibition, depressions, etc.,” said Gail Unzelman, the editor of Wayward Tendrils, and a preeminent historian of California wine. “A wine enterprise almost always seems to rebuild, recover, remain. A destroyed wooden winery is rebuilt in stone, etc.”

The first recorded episode of fire destroying California wine was in 1842, when California was part of Mexico. There was no real wine “industry” at that point. Most of the wine production was clustered around Los Angeles, a pueblo so verdant it was nicknamed “the city of vines.” Wine was produced mostly for personal use. A Frenchman named Jean-Louis Vignes (pronounced, ironically, “vines”) who came to the region around 1831 changed that. Vignes, who had been trained as a cooper in the Bordeaux wine region of France, planted an extensive vineyard around what is now Union Station. In 1840, he sent his nephew north to Monterey and San Francisco to sell barrels of his wine, thus ushering in the beginnings of California’s commercial wine industry.

Vignes must have been proud to show France that he had tamed the wilds of the New World to make good wine using the inferior Mission grape. So in 1842, he sent a barrel of his wine off with the French explorer, Count Eugène Duflot De Mofras, and asked that it be delivered to King Louis Philippe. Duflot De Mofras took the barrel all the way to Europe and put it in a warehouse in Hamburg, Germany. The warehouse, alas, went up in flames.

The most devastating fire to the California wine industry happened after a strong earthquake shook San Francisco on April 18, 1906. The fires that broke out around the city swept through the downtown and south of market areas, burning 28 of the city’s 31 wine houses where most of the state’s wines were made before being shipped. Ten million gallons of the 12 to 15 million gallons of wine lost belonged to the California Wine Association (CWA), a behemoth that controlled about 68-percent of the production and sale of wine in the state.

While most of the wine perished, there were a few miraculous exceptions.

Workers at the CWA’s Italian Swiss Colony’s cellar at Battery Street jury-rigged hoses to pump water from a nearby spring-fed well. “We fought unceasingly for three days and three nights,” Andrea Sbarboro, the company’s Italian founder, recalled after the fire. The workers managed to save 2 million gallons stored in the cellar.

The CWA’s brick headquarters at Third and Bryant streets was among the buildings destroyed. The huge casks that were standard for the time cracked in the shaking, spilling wine into the concrete cellar. But a plugged sewer line meant the wine couldn’t flow into the street and the basement inadvertently became a vast 2-million-gallon wine vat.

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After the flames subsided, executives from the CWA convinced the San Francisco Fire Department to hook hoses up to the cellar and pump the wine onto barges moored in San Francisco Bay. The scorched wine was then transported to the Delta city of Stockton where it was converted to brandy.

Today, when wine is exposed to even a little bit of heat it is discarded. But after the 1906 earthquake, the president of CWA, Percy Morgan, decided to use the heat that 35,000 bottles went through as a sales tool. The CWA sold the bottles as souvenirs to a country eager to have a little piece of the calamity. “These wines by reason of tremendous superheating and slow cooling have developed marvelous qualities,” Morgan said in a newspaper ad. “In richness of bouquet and body and color, they are probably the finest wines ever produced in California.”

The 1906 earthquake and fire proved to be only a temporary setback for the California wine industry. The mighty CWA barely noticed its losses, as it paid a dividend to its investors within a few weeks. The company also managed to argue successfully to its insurance companies that the fire, not the earthquake, destroyed its wine. (It was not insured for earthquakes.) The calamity did end San Francisco’s reign as the center of the wine industry, however. The CWA built the world’s biggest winery across the bay near Richmond, called Winehaven, which it ran until Prohibition. It is still standing there.

‘These wines by reason of tremendous superheating and slow cooling have developed marvelous qualities,’ Morgan said in a newspaper ad.

Another devastating fire had more sinister origins. On Oct. 12, 2005, a Sausalito businessman named Mark Anderson set fire to a wine storage warehouse in Vallejo, about 16 miles south of Napa. Anderson ran a wine storage company that kept its bottles in the 240,000-square foot Wines Central warehouse. Police were investigating him for stealing and selling bottles of his clients’ wine without permission, so on that warm October day, right in the middle of the grape harvest, he tried to cover his tracks.

Anderson set down some gasoline-soaked rags in his storage bay and lit them on fire. The ensuing inferno ripped through the warehouse, scorching and destroying 4.5 million bottles of premium wine from wineries around the state, making it the most destructive wine crime in world history.

Many of the close to 90 wineries that stored bottles at the warehouse lost entire vintages and were out of the marketplace for more than a year. Other wineries saw their library of wines, essentially a few cases from each vintage, destroyed. A handful of wineries were uninsured and either went out of business or struggled to stay afloat. Anderson is now serving a 27-year sentence in federal prison.

The scope of the destructiveness of the recent fires in Sonoma and Napa counties is still unknown, but should become clearer in the next week or so after the fires are put out and those evacuated are allowed to return.

Morgan finally got a chance to see his Kenwood vineyard on Wednesday. As he drove north from Berkeley to Sonoma, the smoke from the fires made the sky hazy but he could see that most of the region’s vineyards looked intact. He had feared the worst for his vineyard, but was heartened to find that it was fine. Still, the grapes were a loss.

“The one small parcel in Kenwood we still had hanging didn’t burn, but it did lose a lot of foliage—possibly from the winds and not the fire,” Morgan wrote in an email. “Because we couldn’t get in to pick at ripeness, about 25-percent of the grapes had raisined with the delay. There was also a fine layer of ash on some clusters. So we decided to not to process this lot.”

Yet Morgan, like other winemakers, remains optimistic that the wine region will recover.

“All this being said, the infrastructure at the wineries and the vineyards is intact. I see no reason to believe that anything other than a full recovery will be sooner than later, and that the wine country will become a destination again as soon as the smoke clears.”