California wine country rebuilds as threats from climate change and wildfires persist

ST. HELENA, Calif .– The block of vines at Cornell vineyards on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Range, just beyond the county line of...


ST. HELENA, Calif .– The block of vines at Cornell vineyards on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Range, just beyond the county line of this central Napa Valley, looked green and healthy in mid-July when they should be halfway through the growing season. But appearances can be deceiving.

This particular block has withstood the devastating forest fires which roared over the hills of Napa and Sonoma ends last September, destroying half of Cornell’s 20-acre vineyard, as well as the newly renovated residence of Henry and Vanessa Cornell, the owners, and two other buildings.

Along the edges of the vineyard, charred Douglas-fir trees stand like stoic sentries waiting to be removed. The vines appear vibrant, but about 30 percent of the block didn’t produce any grapes.

The others have thick, hanging clusters, but the vines can just go through the motions, producing grapes, but not of the quality that usually goes in Cornell’s superb Cabernet Sauvignon.

Evidence of the devastation is all over the Spring mountain district, the name of the appellation on the Napa side, and the Fountaingrove neighborhood, the name of the Sonoma side.

Crumbling foundations with tottering brick chimneys are all that is left of the houses. Hundreds of tree stumps dot the blackened hills, with dead trunks piled into giant logging trucks in an effort to eliminate the risk of fire.

Erosion is a real threat here. The hope is that the stumps, with their root networks intact, will help hold the hillsides in place once the fall rains begin.

But not all of the damage from the 2020 fires in northern Napa Valley and adjacent Sonoma County is not so visible and evident. The consequences for vineyards that have survived direct contact with the fires remain to be determined, as wine producers affected by the fires try to get through the 2021 growing season, without really knowing what they are facing.

Wineries can be rebuilt, temporary facilities found, new vintages made, although the financial cost is high. But for a wine estate to lose its vines – sometimes entire vineyards – it is to be emptied of its vital force.

For the more serious producers, whose aim is to document the distinctive character of a place through wine, the vine is raised like children in its infancy and its lanky and angular youth, with the hope that it produces balanced and expressive wines for decades. To lose them is to mourn.

At Cornell, the most severely damaged vines were uprooted. Others have come under close scrutiny. The winegrowers scraped the outer layer of bark from the trunks of the vines to examine the cambium, the layer through which nutrients flow.

A green color indicated health. But it was not always clear whether the vines were healthy enough to produce top quality grapes. Many of the vines in question were removed, but Cornell left one block untouched as an experiment.

“We have pulled out a third of the vineyard, and now we have to assess the rest, vine by vine,” says Elizabeth Tangney, director of viticulture and winemaking.

The vines adjacent to the trees were the most exposed to the fire and were visibly charred, Ms Tangney said. Those with no visible damage are question marks.

“Was it fire or were they just hot?” Ms. Tangney said. “Some vines look healthy, but they don’t bear fruit. Will they produce next year? There is no manual. We are writing it this year.

The task was similar to Newton’s vineyard, a much larger property on the Napa side of Spring Mountain, where blocks of craggy terraced vineyards, nearly 70 acres, cling to hills winding in multiple directions through wooded canyons. Fires destroyed the cellar, its headquarters and most of the two aging vintages in the cellar, as well as all but five acres of vineyard.

As in Cornell, the fringes of the vineyard, closest to the woods, were obvious victims. Further from the trees, the damage was more difficult to assess.

It was up to Laura Deyermond, the head of the vineyard, to walk each block scraping the bark to observe the cambium and assess the survival rate.

“I put a lot of blood and sweat and tears in there, and I had to call to find out if it would survive,” she said. “The majority of the property has not survived.

This includes Newton’s Pino Solo Vineyard, a block that once included a lone pine, an image that adorns Newton’s label. The vines are green and, to the untrained eye, appear healthy. But they are no longer productive and will be phased out later this year.

“The vines are green, but in survival mode,” said Jean-Baptiste Rivail, CEO of Newton. They are for all intents and purposes comatose, unable to produce excellent grapes. “There is no longer a connection between the head and the heart,” he said.

A new block which would have entered production this year will also be withdrawn. The damage was more evident there.

“The fire was so hot the vines were charcoal,” Ms. Deyermond said. However, the decision to pull up the vines by the roots and start over was not an easy one.

“We have gone through the stages of mourning,” she said, “and we are coming to acceptance.”

Looking across a Newton Valley I could see the burnt brown vineyard of Cain vineyard and cellar, where the fires consumed the cellar and the 2019 and 20 vintages, as well as the residence and car of Christopher Howell and Katie Lazar, husband and wife who are Cain’s CEOs.

Right after the fires of last year, I spoke with Mr. Howell, who told me that the vineyard was largely intact. This turned out not to be the case.

“I guess I was in denial,” Mr. Howell said in mid-July. “Everyone wanted the vines to survive. We meant that the fabric was still green. We didn’t want to believe any of this.

Although he and Ms Lazar don’t quite agree, as in Newton, Mr Howell said he is no longer in denial, although he may still be negotiating, halfway through of the decision of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. five stages of mourning.

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

Cain and Newton made arrangements to make and age wines elsewhere. Cornell was already using facilities far from his vineyard.

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

An answer could be in the wines themselves, like the 2008 Cain Five, so called because it is a blend of the five classic Bordeaux grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit Verdot. The ’08 is a wine of great refinement, balanced and restrained, while expressing delicate aromas and flavors of purple fruits and flowers. Or the pretty and fragrant Cain Five 2016, the current vintage on the market.

“If the vineyard doesn’t have a particular personality, why bother? said Mr. Howell. “It’s a difficult place to cultivate. There must be a reason. “

It’s a similar story to Newton, who has seen a change of style since 2015, aimed at making the wines more expressive of the site and with greater finesse, said Andrew Holve, head of winemaking.

Newton’s 2018 The Puzzle, a Bordeaux red blend of Spring Mountain vineyard grapes, is fine and pure, more elegant than the powerful wines that were once Newton’s hallmark. His 2018 unfiltered Chardonnay is fresh, tangy and textured, far from the opulence and extravagance that were once Newton’s signature.

These may have been Newton’s last full vintages for some time.

“The 2019 was what we wanted to achieve with wine, and 2020 was what we wanted to do with viticulture,” Rivail said of the two lost vintages.

After the fires, Rivail said, Newton, who is owned by LVMH, the French luxury goods company, took three months to develop a plan for the future. Aware of the persistent threats of drought and fires, they plan to build a new cellar, mainly underground.

The vineyard will be replanted over 20 years with firebreaks and an underground irrigation system, burying flexible rubber hoses, which, in their usual position above ground, often act as fire accelerators. As with all new vines, they will need at least three years of growth before they start producing grapes.

Forest management will be a crucial part of the plan. The redwoods, madrones and manzanitas will be replanted, Mr. Rivail said, but not the eucalyptuses, which he called “tins of tinder with oils.”

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

At Cornell Vineyards, where owners Henry and Vanessa were on the verge of full production after 21 years of experimentation and labor, the fires were a moment of judgment. They were in New York at the time of the fires and were amazed at the extent of the destruction. For a moment, they hesitated over rebuilding.

“Oh my God, can we really start over? Ms. Cornell recalled. “But we got over it pretty quickly. Our team was like, ‘If you play, we’re ready.’ “

Part of the reasoning was the potential of the property. Cornell Cabernet Sauvignon is intense yet precise, with firm but fine tannins. The flavors are more salty than slightly fruity, in the best tradition of Cabernet Sauvignon.

As in Newton, firebreaks and forest management will be a crucial part of the reconstruction plan. With the accelerating effects of climate change, dwindling water supplies and the continued threat of fires, it is no longer clear that the region will be hospitable to ambitious winegrowers. But the Cornells will try.

Upon their return to the property after the fires, they planted a pledge tree, an oak tree signifying their dedication to the property.

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Newsrust - US Top News: California wine country rebuilds as threats from climate change and wildfires persist
California wine country rebuilds as threats from climate change and wildfires persist
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