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Northern California Wildfires Destroy Thousands Of Businesses


As we mentioned, Calistoga is in Napa County, which of course is known for its wine. The industry is worth billions of dollars and employs some hundred thousand people across the region. Danielle Venton from member station KQED looks at the fire's toll on one of the area's economic engines.

DANIELLE VENTON, BYLINE: The back patio of Ray Signorello's home and winery overlooks a once-exquisite estate. He used to entertain guests here. Now what's left is charred cinders, collapsed walls and shattered glass.

RAY SIGNORELLO: And it's just, you know, rubble with a couple of columns sticking out of the grounds.

VENTON: Signorello's property here on Napa's Silverado Trail was one of the first to burn.

SIGNORELLO: Literally, like, within the first hour or two, we got hit here. So there was no warning.

VENTON: In the middle of the night, winemaker Pierre Birebent joined other employees taking up hoses.

PIERRE BIREBENT: But the wind and the smoke became thick, and we put a wet T-shirt on the face, tried to stay a little longer. But we have to buck up. And when we back up, the north part of the building was already on fire, and the roof was on fire. So we'd watch it from the distance. And it was all gone.

VENTON: The people were safe, most importantly. But remarkably, so were the vines. Signorello points out some standing just yards from the destroyed building.

SIGNORELLO: Without vineyards, you're not in the business. These vineyards are 28 years old in some cases and 38 years old in some other cases. And that's what makes our wine what it is.

VENTON: That's because it takes newly planted vines three to four years to start producing and a lot longer than that to make an excellent wine. At Benovia Winery 40 miles west in the Russian River Valley, the vines are OK. But winemaker Mike Sullivan says day-to-day operations are at a standstill.

MIKE SULLIVAN: We haven't opened the tasting room since the fire. It's not affecting our wines or wine quality in any way, but it's affected our staff. Four members of the staff have lost their homes.

VENTON: That includes Sullivan himself. But on this day, he's still working...


VENTON: ...Transferring some pinot noir into barrels. Other wine producers still have not been able to get to their wineries, vineyards or homes for that matter. Randy Czech is the winemaker at Banshee, a winery in the city of Healdsburg. He was able to reach some fermentation tanks at least temporarily.

RANDY CZECH: I was the last person through before they closed the road.

VENTON: The only wine tanks he could tend to, though, were those outside the building.

CZECH: The power had been out since yesterday, so we couldn't actually get into the building because when there's a lot of fermentation going on, it produces a lot of CO2. And if the ventilation system isn't working in a large winery, it's not even safe to go inside.

VENTON: Fortunately, about 90 percent of the fruit in the region is already harvested. But Czech had planned to make cabernet this year, and later harvesting grape. Now he's basically given up. It'll taste too smoky. It's one reason why he's worried about the future of some of the growers he works with and buys from.

CZECH: As I make contact with more of our growers, I'm kind of discovering just how big the disaster really is.

VENTON: Though back in Napa, the winemakers are remarkably upbeat. They do plan to rebuild. Right now Pierre Birebent is keeping watch on the fires.

BIREBENT: My suitcase are packed. If we have to leave to evacuate, we are ready to do.

VENTON: Whatever grapes escape the fires, even if damaged, might not go to waste. Worst case scenario, they could be made into vinegar. For NPR News, I'm Danielle Venton in Napa, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Venton
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