Almost exactly nine years ago, upon returning from a visit to California that included an afternoon at Bugay Vineyards in Sonoma, I wrote, “This is a small production, almost cult winery that grows grapes in what is arguably one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the globe.”
Bugay Vineyards sits high atop the Mayacamas mountain range, with views of Napa to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. When founder John Bugay selected this site for his winery, it was inaccessible virgin land with no infrastructure. Roads to the site had to be constructed, wells drilled and building materials hauled over circuitous mountain roads.
The vineyards as well as the gardens and the Italianate villa were all designed by John, who in a former life was in construction and landscape design. It was a breathtakingly beautiful site that is no more, after devastating wildfires swept through northern California earlier this month.
I reached out to John and received the following message: “Sadly, my labor of love, sweat and tears has burned to the ground.”
Sadly, Bugay is not alone. According to John, almost all the properties in his immediate vicinity have met the same fate. Other wineries significantly impacted or destroyed include Mayacamas Vineyards, Signorello Estate and Frey Vineyards. This is only a partial listing, as some owners who were under mandatory evacuation have not been able to return to their properties to assess damage.
According to a running account in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, updated minute by minute as this dynamic crisis continues to evolve, some 6,700 structures have been destroyed. Many of these structures were in the city of Santa Rosa, the county seat for Sonoma County. Current damages are estimated to be more than $3 billion; 42 people have lost their lives.
In Sonoma County alone, some 106,272 acres have burned — the equivalent of 166 square miles — and fires are still burning in some areas.
No one knows for sure what started these fires. Experts say the most likely culprits are humans or Mother Nature, but they agree certain factors contributed to the inferno.
For several years prior to the 2017 growing season, the area suffered multiple years of severe drought. Fortuitously, or maybe not, this past spring was very wet, and as a result brush and undergrowth came back prolifically. Summer and fall were extremely dry and exceptionally warm, and the resulting brush and undergrowth subsequently dried out.
As the fires stated, this brush and undergrowth became like kindling, and the fire was then aided in spreading by seasonal winds. It was the perfect storm for massive fires.
What effect will these fires have on the 2017 vintage? Experts from the University of California, Davis, school of enology say 90 percent of this year’s grapes were already picked before the fires started, leaving only a small percentage of the vintage that might be impacted by wildfire smoke.
If some grapes were affected by something the experts call “smoke taint,” this should not carry over to next year’s vintage. The risk for smoke taint increases with continual and prolonged exposure to smoke, but the heavy winds accompanying this month’s rapidly moving wildfires decreased the risk of smoke taint. Experts do not believe smoke taint will be a problem for this vintage, but agree more study is needed.
Americans are a very charitable people, but there have been so many crises of late that for some, charitable weariness may have set in. Those wanting to contribute to California wildfire relief may do so on the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Redwood Credit Union’s websites.
One of the best ways one might help is to buy wine from the fire-ravaged region. There are plenty of previous vintages on wine shelves.
When the 2017 vintage hits the shelves, don’t avoid it. Remember that 90 percent of this vintage was already harvested and made into wine before the fires.
This was the case for John Bugay and many others. In John’s case, his 2017 wine production was stored outside the area before the fire occurred.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.