Napa’s Winemakers Discover Scorched Vines and Close Calls


After Suzanne Phifer Pavitt and her husband, Shane Pavitt, evacuated their winery near Calistoga, they feared the worst. Watching the feed from their Nest camera online, they could see the flames of the Glass fire come all the way to the front door of the house. When they returned Wednesday, they found both comfort and sorrow.

“The inferno swept through our property and burned all 23 acres,” Phifer Pavitt told Wine Spectator. “But I believe in miracles. [We’re] incredulous but Phifer Pavitt stands.” Her house is also still standing, though it has sustained significant damage.

But the vines in their estate vineyard were not so lucky. “The vineyard is a complete loss. We literally harvested our very first Cabernet—after 10 years of waiting—just two weeks earlier. We were planning to make an estate Cabernet rosé and see how the fruit profile was coming along.”

Nearly a week after it started in the hills above St. Helena, the Glass fire continues to rage across northern Napa Valley, threatening multiple towns and numerous wineries. A few vintners have managed to return to their properties to assess damage in recent days. But evacuation orders remain in place for much of the area, keeping many out.

Worry hangs in the air as thickly as the smoke. Have their wineries and their vines survived? And how many will suffer a complete loss of their 2020 harvest?

Read more of Wine Spectator’s ongoing coverage of the Glass fire, including reporting on damage to Meadowood Resort, Newton Vineyard, Sherwin Family Vineyards, Behrens, Castello di Amorosa and more.

The Glass fire had consumed more than 60,100 acres as of this morning, according to Cal Fire, the state fire agency. Firefighters have established 6 percent containment. More than 589 structures have been confirmed destroyed.

Not far from Phifer Pavitt, Kirk Venge of Venge Vineyards in Calistoga reports that his winery survived, but just barely, thanks to his tenacity and a lot of help from firefighters. “I arrived around 4:30 Monday morning after a very sleepless night and looked south from my home on Tubbs Lane. The glow [of the flames] was quite close and I felt I better get in the truck to have a look.” By the time he weaved through neighbors’ vineyards to get to his winery, fire was all around the property.

Flames burned in the forest above Venge Vineyards earlier this week. (Courtesy Venge Vineyards)

“I met up with a fire chief scouting in an SUV on the crush pad and he gave me the 100 percent loss talk and to get the hell out of there immediately,” he said. “I started saying prayers and goodbyes and drove off through the vineyard while wind pushed the fire in a dance that engulfed the mountain. The hillside and clusters of trees exploded. Ember showers easily flew to where I was and I could see spot fires around the structures here and there.”

When things settled down enough that he felt safe, Venge moved back to his winery, deployed hoses and started spraying out spot fires. Two trucks of firefighters eventually joined him. After an hour, the flames had moved on.

Between the flames in the vineyards and the smoke blanketing the region, he’s not hopeful for harvest. “If it’s not harvested yet it’s going to be dicey,” he said. “I’m really thinking about calling it quits for the rest of the harvest. I like to be optimistic, but this is not the time. It’s time to be realistic.”

Damage at Davis Estates

One of the destroyed buildings at Davis Estates. (Courtesy Davis Estates)

Mike Davis and his wife, Sandy, flew in early Monday, the day after the fire ignited in the mountains behind Davis Estates in Calistoga. They passed through a gauntlet of roadblocks along the Silverado Trail to reach their 155-acre showplace estate that they had spent years building. What they found filled them with a mixture of emotions. The winery was still standing, along with its historic barn and offices. But the area around it was devastated, including the forest behind the winery, three hillside vineyard blocks, several houses and some of their equipment. “It’s very difficult for us to process all this right now,” Davis told Wine Spectator.

Fortunately, Cal Fire was able to make a stand at the estate because they were able to tap into four 100,000-gallon steel water tanks that Davis had installed in 2012, and the cellar team had already laid out fire hoses and hooked them up to three fire hydrants when the Hennessey fire broke out in August. They spent Monday and Tuesday putting out spot fires on the property and clearing the roads.

Flames at Davis

The fire came right through Davis Estates. (Courtesy Davis Estates)

Davis hopes to get the winery running again soon. “Currently we have a large generator for power so we can process 2020 wines,” he said. “Our entire team is working toward a goal of opening the winery patio for tastings on or before Oct. 12.”

To the east, on Howell Mountain, Elton Slone, president and CEO at Robert Craig Winery, reported Wednesday that helicopters were dropping water on the fire not far from the winery. He and his team are trying to get back there to keep the winery running, fueling up a generator to keep electricity on. “We now have [agricultural] passes [to get through roadblocks] and are hoping to get back up [Thursday] to get the ferments off of the skins,” he said. “We don’t know when they will allow workers with passes back up. For now, the tanks were all still cool, so the generator had not been off long.”

Calistoga Ranch

The Calistoga Ranch resort was another victim. (AFP via Getty Images)

On the western side of Napa Valley, vintners continue to battle the flames on Spring Mountain. The fire burned along the lower portion of Schweiger Vineyards & Winery and Vineyard 7 & 8’s property lines all day. Vineyard 7 & 8’s Wesley Steffens said several neighbors lost their homes but believes that Schweiger winery was saved. “A good fight on it all day,” he said. “The cavalry arrived today, perhaps 10 fire engines on the hill.”

Spring Mountain still had spot fires

Spot fires continued to endanger vines on Spring Mountain. (Courtesy Wesley Steffens)

High winds remain in the forecast for today. And record temperatures are predicted for the entire weekend, which means firefighter teams may not be able to contain the blazes for several more days. It means more smoke, more flames and more lost fruit.

Yet vintners remain dedicated to salvaging what they can and rebuilding what’s been lost. Looking at the remains of her scorched vineyard, Phifer Pavitt had one thought. “Now we start again.”

Sherwin Family Vineyards

Items salvaged from the ruins of Sherwin Family Vineyards. (Courtesy Wesley Steffens)

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