California wildfires reduce beloved Napa Valley wine and tourist spots to ashes and scorched earth
- The California wildfires are still raging, and wineries, restaurants and other attractions have been destroyed
- The Silverado Trail in Napa Valley and the town of Calistoga, both destinations for wine lovers, have suffered badly
The Silverado Trail has long been a place of dreams for Napa Valley wine lovers as it winds gently through vineyards and on to Calistoga.
California’s Glass Fire, which erupted on the morning of September 27 in the hills above Napa Valley, has turned much of that dream to ashes, destroying a three-star restaurant at Meadowood resort, torching wineries such as Chateau Boswell and tainting precious grapes with smoke.
The US West Coast is experiencing a record-breaking fire season, exacerbated by climate breakdown, with five of the state’s six biggest blazes in history currently burning, and nearly four million acres scorched. California has recorded the deaths of at least 29 people and the destruction of more than 7,000 structures.
At least a dozen Napa wineries and vineyards have been affected by the Glass Fire, with the scorched area now spanning almost 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares).
On Wednesday, at the Trailside Inn Bed and Breakfast, the skeletal remains of a bus converted into a camper van sat in a smouldering patch near a vintage Packard car with paint melted off the bonnet. Smoke rose along the road and on hillsides, where crews of firefighters could be seen attacking pockets of flame with picks, shovels and hosepipes.
Wineries that weren’t in ruins were closed, often unattended because people were ordered to evacuate the area and have not been allowed back in.
A guard stood watch at the entrance to Meadowood, where chef Christopher Kostow had turned the resort’s eponymous restaurant into a three-Michelin-star dining experience. While some other parts of the resort were spared, the restaurant was obliterated.
Flames also headed for Kostow’s house in Calistoga, only to burn around the home instead of through it.
“Losing your restaurant and your home would have been a double hit no one could take,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, who checked on Kostow’s home for him.
Flames jetted from broken propane gas lines in the remnants of high-end mobile homes at the luxurious Calistoga Ranch, which has swimming pools, a lake and hiking trails.
“It was unlike any trailer park you’ve ever seen,” firefighter Matt Macdonald of nearby Sonoma said while looking over the still smouldering landscape. Near a “valet parking” sign were twisted remains of golf carts once used to shuttle guests around the property.
“It’s all very sad,” said a Napa County sheriff deputy watching over a vineyard on the Silverado Trail. “People who come here each have their own memories, usually about a winery they love because it became special to them.”
In nearby Calistoga, known for geothermal hot springs, mud baths and wine tours, the cellar master at Castello di Amorosa braved the thick smoke and fire to assess the damage. Flames had gutted a stone farmhouse used to store wine but spared the faux medieval Italian castle made of material brought in from Europe.
The farmhouse held about 120,000 bottles of wine, valued at about US$5 million, and it is expected to cost US$10 million to US$12 million to restore the building, according to owner Dario Sattui.
Flames ringed Calistoga, creeping slowly down dry, brown hillsides. Vineyards, with their green vines and lack of underbrush, acted as fire breaks.
The main street was deserted, from the Calistoga Inn to Copperfield Books and the Indian Springs lodge, known for its giant pool of geothermal water.
Calistoga has become a wine country destination, and the town of about 5,200 residents typically sees more than a million visitors annually, according to Canning.
The pandemic struck a blow to the tourism and wine business, and now wildfires have claimed coveted destinations. “2020 sucks, I want this year over,” Canning said. “We’ll come back, but let’s get all of this out of the way in 2020 so in future years we are done.”
That is likely to be a forlorn hope. California’s peak wildfire season traditionally runs from September through to November but it has grown longer and less predictable in recent years, with blazes coming as late as December. And as the climate grows ever less stable, the wildfires are likely to get even worse.