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California Wineries Complete Earliest Harvest on Record Despite Drought, Wildfires

One month after the destructive Valley Fire forced evacuations and a suspension of the grape harvest in California's Lake County, the wine-growing community is recognizing another harvest while also initiating a fundraising campaign to aid rebuilding efforts.

After igniting on Sept. 12 near Cobb, California, the Valley Fire was finally 100 percent contained on Oct. 6. With 76,067 acres burned and 1,958 structures destroyed, including 1,280 homes, the Valley Fire turned into the third most damaging wildfire in recorded history of California. The fire, which impacted Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties also caused four civilian fatalities.

Most of the Lake County wineries were able to move forward without significant damage, Terry Dereniuk, executive director of the Lake County Winery Association, said. However, she said it's too early to say with certainty what the economic impact will be for wine producers.

Ten wineries were forced to evacuate in the middle of harvest and shut down for several days, but only one, Shed Horn Cellars in Middletown, California, suffered major damage to its production facility, Dereniuk said. One positive was that the company had extra inventory stored offsite and its tasting room, which is at another location, was unscathed.

"Truth is that with the harvest interruption, it really was only about four days, which was good news," she said.

This harvest was one of the earliest on record for the county, which has about 35 wine producers and farm roughly 8,800 acres of vineyard. Harvest was wrapping up along the North Coast by early October, when typically it can extend into November, Dereniuk said.

Early in the fire's development, tests were done to ensure that smoke had not permeated through the skin of the grapes. When samples were taken to measure the compounds that are correlated with smoke flavors, those early tests indicated no elevated levels in the compound, according to Dereniuk.

Sunday, the day after the fire started, there was a considerable amount of atmospheric smoke, Dereniuk said. Favorable winds helped push the smoke out of the surrounding area and skies were again clear for the most part by Monday. Light rain at midweek prevented conditions from worsening.

"The combination of all of those things was favorable to the grapes that had not been harvested and helped to keep them in a sound condition," she said.

In neighboring Napa County, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers held a press conference to discuss the harvest and the earlier-than-normal finish. Winemakers expressed satisfaction with the quality of the grapes, but said that yields were down from the last three years.

Back in the spring, bud break started about three weeks earlier than normal, Matt Reid, winemaker for Benessere Vineyards and Estate Winery, said.

"Despite some cooler weather that followed in May, the vines never really slowed down, so we kept a fast pace," he said.

Warm and dry conditions helped lead to the early berry development and then warm to hot weather in August and September helped initiate the early harvest, Remi Cohen, vice president and general manager of Lede Family Wines, said.

"The quality looks good overall, with ripe flavors, good concentration, and lots of freshness due to high acidity in the grapes," she said.

Despite the state's ongoing battle with a historic drought, Dereniuk said it hasn't been a factor in Lake County thanks to the utilization of the latest technology and information about water usage.

"Our crops, from what we have seen, tend to be probably pretty similar to other areas," she said.

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers said the storms that did arrive, did so at opportune times for storage and saturating vineyards soils.

While the harvest activities were concluding, fundraising efforts to help the fire-ravaged community were ramping up.

Along with the Lake County Wine Alliance, and the Lake County Winegrape Commission, the Lake County Winery Association established a < href="http://www.lakecountywinegrape.org/news-events/valley-fire-relief-fund/" target="_blank">Valley Fire relief fund that has raised more than $275,000 with donations pouring in from across California's wine country.

"People from all across the region are really stepping up," Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Wine Commission said in a press release. "Many of them know someone - a friend, family member or co-worker - who lost everything. They really feel the impact and know that it will take some hard work for these communities to recover. They're eager to contribute."

The current focus is on both short-term and long-term efforts to rebuild and recover from the Valley and other fires, Dereniuk said.

"We're looking forward to continuing to recover from these disastrous fires and hoping that this is the end of it," she said.