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Wine country ‘in shock’ as fires ravage iconic California region

Smoke rises over burned down homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California early Monday, sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Smoke rises over burned down homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California early Monday, sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

(Bloomberg) -- Wildfires that tore through northern California’s iconic wine-growing regions have prompted evacuations of more than 20,000 people, killed 11 and damaged some of the most valuable vineyards and wineries in the U.S.

Related: 6 critical home fire escape planning tips

Blazes are sweeping through one of the state’s most scenic and treasured destinations, threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. California’s wine industry drew 23.6 million tourists and sold $34.1 billion in retail value in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Wine Institute. The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are where the highest-end wine in the state is produced.

“We are all in shock and trying to help our fellow growers and neighbors where we can,” said Heidi Soldinger, a spokeswoman for Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

Related: At least 29 large wildfires ravage Western states [slideshow]

In the last 24 hours, winds fanned 17 fires across the northern part of the state, burning more than 115,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. About 1,500 commercial, residential and industrial structures were burned, and damage assessment teams have started accounting for the destruction. Governor Edmund Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties.

Mostly finished


The harvest in Sonoma and Napa counties is mostly finished, said Daniel Sumner, an agricultural professor at the University of California at Davis. Still, fires can damage grapes yet to be collected and can also destroy vines and wineries, he said.

“It’s bound to be a significant and substantial impact on the high-quality wine industry,” Sumner said.

The latest wildfires are among California’s five most damaging, Aon says

Jennifer Putnam, chief executive officer of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, said 80% of the county’s crop has been harvested. How long smoke lingers will help determine whether grapes on the vine are tainted, she said.

“This was going to be a big week,” she said. “A lot of the fruit still hanging is high quality cabernet.”

In Sonoma, about 90% of the crop has been harvested, though some winegrapes were scheduled to be picked in the next 10 days, according to Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. Reports of fire damage to wineries, businesses and homes are mounting. About 6% of Sonoma’s 1 million acres is grapes, Kruse said.

Related: Wildfires: an expanding threat?

Hilton hotel damaged by fire

A fire burns at a Hilton hotel on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Constellation brands shuts Napa wine tasting rooms as fires rage


While Sonoma and Napa produce about 10% of California’s wines, it’s the most valuable region in the country, said Stephen Rannekleiv, a beverage analyst at Rabobank International. Most grapes in the state are grown in the San Joaquin Valley, where cabernet sauvignon grapes go for about $400 a ton.

The same fruit from Napa Valley usually costs closer to $7,000 a ton, and can sell for as much as $50,000. High-end wines are driving demand growth in the U.S., with bottles priced over $10 seeing the biggest gains, Rannekleiv said.

“That’s why it’s so devastating — so much of the value is created there, and incredible investment has gone in there,” Rannekleiv said by telephone. “It’s the face of the California wine industry.”

Related: Top 10 ZIP codes for fire loss

Pictures flooded social media showing burned-down buildings in the region. Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa was among those that burned down, according to a Facebook post. Signorello Estates burned as well, according to the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance.

Fires tripped several high-voltage power lines leaving tens of thousands without electricity, according to PG&E Corp.

The French Laundry, a three-Michelin star restaurant, was shuttered Monday due to power outages, according to the restaurant’s Twitter account. Spirits maker Constellation Brands Inc. closed its tasting rooms as well, including at Robert Mondavi Winery. Phone lines at some of the region’s other famous producers were out of commission Monday afternoon, including Whitehall Lane Winery and Martinelli Winery.

Wildfire destroys property

Fire burns from an open gas valve near the pool area at the Journey's End trailer park on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif., after a wildfire destroyed nearly all of the roughly 160 units in the park for residents over age 55. The homes next to U.S. Highway 101 at the northern end of this city of 175,000 were among those that were consumed by flames as more than a dozen fires burned statewide. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Vine damage


Even in vineyards where all the grapes have been collected, there’s the possibility of fire damage to the vines themselves, said Jess Koehler, co-owner of La Finquita Winery in Ramona, outside of San Diego in Southern California.

“It takes at least three years minimum to get a crop that you can actually do something with — the more mature the vine gets, the higher quality the grapes, the higher quality the wines,” Koehler said. “It could have a real long-lasting impact for everybody up there.”

In 2008, smoke from smoldering wildfires in Mendocino County contaminated crops of pinot noir grapes, said Bill Pauli, a grower and general partner of Yokayo Wine Co. in Ukiah, California.

“Some wines had the odor of someone who had been standing next to a barbecue,” Pauli said in a telephone interview. “It was not a good situation and we all hope it doesn’t happen again.”

Woman searches remains of home

Kristine Pond reacts as she searches the remains of her family's home destroyed by fires in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Winery destoryed

The entrance to the fire-ravaged Signorello Estate winery is seen Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Destroyed store

A man walks past the front of a Kmart store destroyed by a fire in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Remains of burned down homes

The remains of burned down homes are shown in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Burning hotel

Rudy Habibe, from Puerto Rico, stands by the burning Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel, where he was a guest, in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Burning home

A firefighter hoses down a house burning in Santa Rosa, Calif., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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