When the Smoke Clears

What will it take to stop the California wildfires?

wildfiresIt has been nearly three years since I wrote about the California wildfires, after the catastrophic blazes in late 2017:


I predicted back then that little or nothing would be done to prevent future wildfires; as it turned out, you didn’t need to be clairvoyant to make that prediction. In 2017, of course, things were different: the fires were mostly burning out farmers who grew crops such as avocados, garlic and prunes, and the damage had not yet reached the high-rent areas of Napa and Sonoma.

This time around, nearly two dozen wineries were either damaged or destroyed, and the three-star Michelin restaurant at Meadowood burned to the ground. The hardest hit areas in Napa were in the northern part of the county, from Calistoga down to St. Helena; in Sonoma, the worse damage occurred in a large radius around the town of Santa Rosa and the area west of Healdsburg.

The 2020 vintage is probably a total loss. Whether or not a winery was affected by the fires themselves, shifting winds permeated most of the grapevines with smoke taint. Tourism has also taken a huge hit: if the travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19 weren’t bad enough, visitors now have to confront the fact that many wineries have little to offer them.

Putting out fire

In 2017, we were told that the state was “working on” a plan to avert future disasters. Clearly, they’re not working very hard. To be fair, California had $1 billion budgeted for wildfire prevention before the pandemic hit, after which the resources were directed elsewhere. Yet despite a $54 billion budget shortfall, the state managed to spend $1.1 billion on the homeless problem, including over $300 million in San Francisco alone.

Since we’re talking about money, here are the statistics for the California wine industry in 2019: $57.6 billion in state economic impact, $114 billion in national economic impact; 325,000 jobs in California and 786,000 nationwide; $15.2 billion paid in state and local taxes; 23.6 million visits to wine regions, generating $7.2 billion in tourism. Impressive as they are, figures like that don’t begin to express the heartache of people who have lost their homes, possessions, family histories and heritage.

What will happen next year?


Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three works of fiction; his latest novel, Impeachment, is now released and available on Amazon.

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