Wildfires take a toll on Southern California vineyards

The fires that ripped through California’s southland were as fickle at picking on vineyards as they were at picking on homeowners.

“Temecula Valley was spared,” says Karen Ross, president of California Association of Winegrape Growers. Other areas didn’t get so lucky. “As of this time and date we have one winery destroyed in southeast San Diego in the Harris Fire,” says Alex McGeary, president of the San Diego County Vintners Association and owner of Shadow Mountain Vineyards & Winery. “The Ramona Valley is still without communication. We’ve only had contact with 35 percent of the 42 wineries here in the county."

Carolyn Harris, secretary of the Ramona Valley Vineyards Association, says a Santa Ana-driven wildfire threatened every home, vineyard, and winery in Ramona Valley, which was under mandatory evacuation orders. Hundreds of homes were lost in the Ramona Valley, though only one of the 90 RVVA members lost his house. Several members lost barns and outbuildings, and many more had native vegetation cleared down to dirt and rocks. There were no confirmed reports of burned vineyards or wineries; in fact some vineyards have been credited with acting as a buffer and saving the adjacent houses, Harris says.

“When they evaluated the circumstances and resources available to their individual properties, many RVVA members and our neighbors defied the evacuation order and stayed behind to fight the fire. There is no doubt these efforts were not in vain, and those of us who were compelled to evacuate appreciate the individual efforts that saved our homes

Logistics made communication even tougher after the fires. “Wineries here are spread out north to south, mostly inland in mountain areas,” McGeary says. “There’s a lot of smoke damage now in the second week.”

Other areas suffered only minor damage to a few vines and end posts and should come out of the ordeal without too many long-lasting problems. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the Small Business Disaster Assistance Loan Guarantee Program to be activated to guarantee $7 million in loans for farms, agriculture-related businesses, and businesses in communities that suffered damage or significant economic loss as a result of the southern California wildfires.

Before the impact of the recent fires, San Diego County growers suffered more severe yield reductions than are being reported in most other areas of the state. “Harvest is finished,” McGeary says. “Yields are down by nearly 50 percent.”

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