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More than a year after devastating wildfires, California’s wine country is still rebuilding

By Jillian MacMath, AccuWeather staff writer
January 03, 2019, 1:40:05 PM EST


California’s 2017 wildfire season went down in history as one of the costliest and most destructive on record — and now, more than one year later, the state’s wine country is still rebuilding.

Unusual late-season fires paired with blazes larger than the state had ever seen before led to the damage of more than 1.2 million acres.

Hit particularly hard was California’s wine country — namely, Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

More than two dozen wineries and vineyards faced some degree of damage, while others were reduced to ashes, with very little salvageable.

Static AP California Wildfire Image Oct. 9, 2017 Napa

Flames approach a building as smoke from a wildfire blankets the area on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Napa, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)


Rebuilding continues more than a year later

Signorello Estate Vineyards in Napa, established by father and son pair Ray Sr. and Ray Jr. in 1977, just broke ground this November, after losing the winery to a blaze in October 2017.

“The fire almost completely destroyed the buildings [on the estate], which included a hospitality area, office and Ray Signorello’s home,” a spokeswoman for the Signorello Estate told AccuWeather.

However, the family’s prized vineyards acted as a fire break and were spared.

At the time, the 2017 harvest was 95 percent complete, and the wines in tank were evaluated and deemed of high quality and some (such as the 2017 Hope’s Cuvee Chardonnay) are currently available for sale.

She said, “Thankfully, the finished wines were stored off property, and the wines in barrel were spared, as they were located on another part of the property not affected by the fires.”

Regardless, the experience was “completely devastating” for the family.

signorello estate fire

The Signorello Estate is still rebuilding after being hit hard during the 2017 wildfire season. (Photo/Adrian Gregorutti for Signorello Estate)


“I was with Ray when he toured the property, ruins and rubble. But the moment he saw that the vineyard itself had been spared, he vowed to rebuild.”

“Some of the vineyards on the property are close to 40 years old, and the Chardonnay vines are among the oldest in Napa Valley. It will take two to three years to rebuild the winery, but vineyards of that age and maturity simply couldn’t have been replaced,” she said.

Fortunately for the Signorello family, the outdoor crush pad wasn’t damaged, so they were able to continue making wine in 2017 and 2018.

Not all were quite as lucky, however.

Ancient Oak Cellars in Sonoma County lost its entire 15-acre vineyard, in addition to the owners’ family home, two barns and several outbuildings.

Melissa Moholt-Siebert and her partner Ken remember the night of the fire vividly.

sonoma strong wine country fires

A sign about the recent wildfires stands in a vineyard outside the Cline Cellars winery Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in Sonoma, California. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)


Melissa told AccuWeather: “Ken and I smelled smoke a bit after 10 p.m. It was a very warm night, so our windows were all open. At about 12:30 a.m. a neighbor came to tell us that there was a fire in the hills.”

Ken woke Melissa and began some fire protective measures, including cleaning needles off the roof. Melissa gathered computers, got the cars ready and joined Ken in trying to fight a fire that started from an ember which had landed on the property.

Melissa said, “It very quickly exploded, and the decision to evacuate became absolutely obviously necessary. We left shortly after 1 a.m. -- so about half an hour after first hearing about the fire.”

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“This is a place that several generations of family have worked very hard to create. To see all of that undone is devastating. In addition, to lose generations of memorabilia is also very hard,” she said.

Unfortunately, the family says tourism is not back to pre-fire levels, and it’s hugely impacted local businesses.

She said, “This is due to both lack of tourists and the fact that such a huge percentage of residents in certain small areas -- the Larkfield area close to us, for example -- lost their homes. When residents left, they no longer ate at those local restaurants or shopped in those local shops.”

Despite the challenges, the family said it wasn’t a difficult decision to rebuild.

“The reason we took over the family ranch and vineyard is because it was a place of Ken's heart. We have poured body and soul into the place and built a new business -- Ancient Oak Cellars winery -- around it. The winery is now in a positive growth stage, so we have many reasons to stay and rebuild,” she said.

wine wildfires CA

A wildfire burns behind a winery Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Fire crews made progress this week in their efforts to contain the massive wildfires in California wine country, but officials say strong winds are putting their work to the test. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)


Optimistic for the future

According to Visit Napa Valley, the majority of the area’s more than 400 wineries were open and hosting guests just days after the fires started.

Ultimately, less than 14 percent of the county’s total of 504,000 acres were affected, they said.

Across all three counties, many have found ways to continue selling and receiving guests while rebuilding continues.

And while it may be, for many, years until a state of normalcy is restored, the region is very much open for business.

“The best way for wine enthusiasts to help our community recover is to visit and support our hotels, restaurants and tasting rooms,” Clay Gregory, president and CEO for Visit Napa Valley said.

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