Coronavirus

Fires, virus take toll on Sonoma wine grapes

TAGS: Disaster
Tim Hearden Karissa Kruse
Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, estimated that as much as 30% of the county’s 2020 wine grape harvest would go unpicked because of the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires.
Between 25% and 30% of the county’s grapes were expected to go unpicked.

While much attention has been given to the Glass Fire’s wave of destruction in the Napa Valley, wildfires and effects from the COVID-19 pandemic have also taken their toll on wine producers in neighboring Sonoma County.

Though the 2020 growing season enjoyed near-perfect conditions, the mid-August lightning storms and pandemic impacts will cause a loss of as much as $150 million to growers in the county, a local growers’ group reports.

“No one could have predicted how the external events of 2020 would impact the entire community in Sonoma County including growers, vintners, workers, local hotels, restaurants, stores, suppliers and, ultimately, local residents,” Sonoma County Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse said.

“We estimate between 25% and 30% of the Sonoma County wine grape harvest will go unpicked due to the pandemic and fires,” she said. “We are also waiting to learn what wines will be made this year.”

A $150 million hit to growers would have a ripple effect on the county’s local wine and tourism industries, which can contribute up to $13.4 billion annually to the local economy, Kruse said.

The organization surveyed growers about damage to gather accurate data given the extensive national media coverage of the northern San Francisco Bay Area’s wine country in recent months. According to the survey:

More than 70% of all wine grape growers in Sonoma County anticipate having at least some grapes that will go unpicked or be rejected by wineries because of the wildfires.

Grape growers estimate that unpicked grapes will total 50,000 tons because of the fires and marketplace dynamics.

The estimated crop value for wine grapes that were not harvested equates to about $151,657,081.

The county’s difficulties come as the more than 67,000-acre Glass Fire in early autumn wrought devastation in the heart of Northern California’s iconic wine country, damaging or destroying nearly 30 wineries while affecting as many as 80% of Napa Valley vineyards and causing industry losses approaching $500 million, according to published estimates.

LNU Lightning Complex

The region’s wine grape growers were already facing likely smoke taint after the 363,220-acre LNU Lightning Complex rolled through the region in late summer, destroying or damaging over 1,500 structures while killing five people and injuring five others, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. More than 4 million acres in California were burned by wildfires in 2020.

Fires are becoming an annual occurrence in the wine country, which has suffered a series of blazes in the last four years. In 2017, more than 2 dozen wineries were damaged or destroyed by fire. In the following year smoke from the Mendocino Complex Fires destroyed the market for an estimated $41 million in grapes grown near burn areas.

“One of the bright spots in a dismal year has been the recent efforts of our winegrowers to transform their businesses to prepare for an ever-changing future,” Kruse said. “Following the fires in 2017, the grower community set out to adopt a new approach to doing business which included hiring more full-time employees to secure a stable, talented work force.”

Amid a decade of labor shortages, growers began shifting away from seasonal workers and hiring full-time employees, the growers’ organization notes. Today, more than 80% of Sonoma’s vineyard workers are full-time, which is about a 20% increase from 2017.

In response to this year’s fires and the pandemic, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation reopened a farmworkers’ fund it had created after previous fires. Through the fund, nearly $100,000 has been provided to more than 200 farmworkers and their families who lost their homes or were forced to evacuate, according to an SCW news release.

Another 40 farmworkers and their families who were affected by COVID-19 also received financial help from the fund, which has supported over 1,500 local farmworkers and provided $1.3 million in direct aid since 2017.

For more information about the foundation, visit https://www.scggf.org/.

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