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Oct. 24, 2020, 9:45 a.m. EDT

California’s fabled wine region is having ‘the most horrible, devastating and catastrophic year’

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By Joy Wiltermuth

Dario Sattui has seen a lot in his half-century in the wine business, but never a year as brutal as this one.

“First of all, we had the COVID shutdowns for three months. Then, after the first fires in the hills, visitors didn’t come,” Sattui, 78, said of blazes in August that converged nearby into the LNU Lightining Complex fire, the fourth-largest in California’s history.

That was before the Glass Fire struck the Napa Valley region, and became the most destructive in the history of the fabled California wine country. The blaze, sparked on Sept. 27, burned 67,484 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.

For Sattui, the Glass Fire destroyed an estimated $9 million worth of wine and ravaged his stone farmhouse, but left his iconic Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga unscathed. But business has been slow to return, and he sees struggles all around for local businesses, from restaurants to beauty parlors to motels catering to tourists.

“In 48 years in the business, this is, by far, the most horrific, devastating and catastrophic year.”

Sattui already has begun plotting out the restoration of his farmhouse, down to its handmade roof tiles from Europe. His Tuscan-style castle Castello di Amorosa also reopened to visitors about a week ago. But despite the return of blue skies across Napa’s billion-dollar wine region, Sattui said the castle only has seen about a third of the visitors from the same month last year.

“Most of what burned was in the hillsides,” Sattui said. “Napa really makes great wine. I want to encourage people to come and visit.”

Napa’s wine region consists of 46,000 acres under cultivation, but with its hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses, it provides an estimated $9.5 billion annually to the local economy and $34 billion nationally, even though its crop production accounts for only about 4% of California’s wine grapes .

Jon Moramarco, managing partner of wine analytics and advisory company bw166, estimates that the Glass Fire’s property damage alone, with nearly three dozen Napa Valley wineries hit, could total hundreds of millions of dollars, while lost wine inventory could add another $20 million to $50 million.

Crop damage from smoke and fire, per his estimates, could also threaten up to one-third, or about $200 million worth, of the region’s wine grapes and deal an $800 million blow to wineries’ revenue over time.

“Unfortunately, we’ll know more when the grape crush reports come out in February,” he told MarketWatch.

The hardest-hit areas from the Glass Fire were the wine grape-growing regions of Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain, which like many of Napa Valley’s hundreds of wineries, typically are family run and produce fewer than 10,000 cases of wine a year.

Matt Sherwin said his parents’ home in Spring Mountain was fine, since the vineyard acted as a firebreak, but that the family’s 24-year-old Sherwin Family Vineyards winery, which burned and collapsed into the cellar and barrel storage area, was a total loss.

“Basically, we lost 2019 and 2020,” the assistant winemaker told MarketWatch, adding that sales of its older vintages bottled and stored off-site will help sustain the business as they rebuild.

“It is one of those things where we won’t feel the pain from the lost vintages immediately,” he said. “We won’t feel that for three years, when there’s a big hole for the two years where we won’t have anything.”

David Nassar, a co-founder of the destroyed Flying Lady Winery on Spring Mountain, also plans to rebuild.

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