Northern California Fires Are Ravaging the Grape and Cannabis Crops

Sonoma County is usually a beautiful, mild place.

Arnie Papp on Flickr

Dozens of fires are ripping through Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties in northern California.

Authorities have reported at least 21 people have died as a result of the fires, and dry conditions and powerful winds indicate that they’re far from quenched.

This part of California, starting about an hour drive north of San Francisco, is one of the country’s most important agricultural zones. Napa and Sonoma are home to thousands of grape growers and hundreds of wineries worth tens of billions of dollars per year, and there’s also a thriving dairy industry (cows, goats, and sheep), as well as some vegetable growers. Sonoma County alone has nearly 75,000 head of cattle. Further up the coast into the slightly cooler and more forested Mendocino County, there are thousands of cannabis farms.

It’s not yet clear exactly how the fires will affect the farms in these counties. “At this time, we are still assessing the specific damage to Sonoma County vineyards as well as to our communities and neighbors,” wrote the Sonoma County Winegrowers, an association of growers, on Facebook.

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Much of the grape crop, the biggest in the region, has already been harvested, though some cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes were still on the vine at the onset of the fire. Even if spared, the presence of smoke can taint the grapes, making them unsuitable for wine-making. Additionally, the stores of grapes, mash, and juice are vulnerable, too. So far, there are several reports of damaged or destroyed vineyards. Wine Inspector reports that Frey Vineyards (the country’s first fully biodynamic vineyard) has been demolished, except for a warehouse. Signorello Estate Winery and Paradise Ridge Winery have also burned.

Grape vines, which can live and produce wine for decades, are hardy, tough plants and exposure to fire and intense heat will not necessarily kill them—they can lose all their leaves to a fire, even show some blackening on the vine itself, and still produce the next year. But these fires are insanely strong, and could potentially impact the region for many years to come.

Mendocino County’s cannabis crop is almost as important economically as grapes; some estimates place the annual value of the crop at nearly $40 million, and that’s likely a conservative guess given the still mostly unmonitored nature of the crop. There are somewhere between 3,000 and 9,000 cannabis growers in Mendocino—again, we don’t have solid data—and cannabis, unlike grapevines, have no protection whatsoever against fire. Reports indicate millions of dollars of lost product.

As for dairy, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that many ranchers that have been forced to evacuate are doing their best to bring their cows, sheep, or goats with them, or at least get them to open spots with low grass (California’s tall, dry grass is more likely to burn) and abundant water.

Northern California Fires Are Ravaging the Grape and Cannabis Crops