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How the California Wildfires Have Devastated Wine Country

"This was literally a hurricane of fire. This global warming sh*t is getting real."

by Mayukh Sen
Oct 13 2017, 2:26pm

Photo by Adrianna Oster Gozza

Adrianna Oster Gozza considers herself lucky. Her family's winery, Oster Wine Cellars, wasn't too big, making a mere 1,000 cases of wine a year. But it burned to the ground.

"We're right in the middle of grape harvest," Gozza tells MUNCHIES over the phone. "That's a year's worth of income for some wineries in the area."

Located in California's Mendocino County, Oster Wine Cellars is just one of a number of wineries that's been damaged, if not completely decimated, by the wildfires ravaging Northern California's wine country since this past Sunday, October 8. The wildfires have, as of writing, left at least 31 dead across eight counties. Hundreds more remain missing, while tens of thousands have evacuated the affected areas. The fires risk battering a financially vibrant wine industry that sustains livelihoods across the region.

What remains of Oster Wine Cellars. Photo by Adrianna Oster Gozza.

Gozza and her parents, Ken and Teresa Fetzer Oster, began Oster Wine Cellars in 2002. She feels it's too early to determine what long-term damage this will accrue on the family business, noting that, thankfully, the winery isn't the family's entire source of income. "We're trying to reassess right now," she says of the winery's business plan moving forward. "We were so small. If you're a larger winery, it would be devastating." She cites the nearby, much larger Frey Vineyards, whose winery has been completely destroyed.

"We don't have any information to give," a representative of Stags' Leap Winery in Napa, who wished only to be identified as Maggie, tells MUNCHIES. "We are closed until Friday. It's just a little bit too early to have much information." Speaking from Santa Rosa, she says that all roads to the winery are closed, preventing anyone from reaching the premises, though she doesn't anticipate that the winery lost any personnel.

"You have no idea how pretty it was before," Gozza remembers of her family's winery. "This was literally a hurricane of fire. This global warming shit is getting real."

Oster Wine Cellars after the fire. Photo by Adrianna Oster Gozza.


Like Gozza, many others have been quick to assign causality to global warming. "The real tragedy is how the city and vineyards burned," Dennis Baldocchi, a professor specializing in climate change science at the University of California, Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, writes MUNCHIES over email. "Often, these events occur in the remote hills and backcountry."

He tells MUNCHIES that hot dry winds of this nature are rare, though they can—and do—occur from time to time. When asked to name any precedent for fires of this sort ravaging an entire industry, he cites the Oakland fires of 1991, and, much earlier, Berkeley's in 1923.

READ MORE: A 'Boiling River of Wine' Flows Out of the Napa Fire Devastation

Baldocchi argues that this latest cluster of blazes can be attributed to "a perfect storm" of certain factors: a wet winter that produced lots of biomass; the end of the summer dry season, when the vegetation is at its driest and thus most combustible; winds coming from the Northeast, which created a particularly unique weather event.

But he says it's wise to anticipate that disasters of this sort will occur, likely with greater frequency and force. "Fire and climate scientists do say that, with a warming climate, we will be at more risk for events like this," Baldocchi claims. "Trends are towards more large fires covering more area and being more intense [than what we've seen before]. We can expect more fires like this in the future."