The state of the California wine industry is one of the biggest concerns coming out of the Northern California Fires, but the devastation is expected to also have significant consequences for local growers, farms and restaurants, with the impact even reaching San Francisco.
Grower William Henpenn, owner of Sonoma's Kicking Bull Farms, as well as Paine Farm, which provides squab to some of the top restaurants in the Bay Area — including SF’s Zuni, Quince, Nopa, Chez Panisse and Oliveto—is already feeling the immediate effects, even though his properties have luckily been spared. He says the fire did come within a mile of Paine in Carneros.
“We haven't been able to work really. That’s our biggest effect right now. There are a lot of vegetables we were trying to plant this week. It’s a turnover time; tomatoes are winging out, there are no more cucumbers, but we have all these cauliflowers, broccolis, and seeds that need to go in the ground,” said Henpenn, who added that his team hasn’t been able to pick either. “Even a couple of weeks are a big loss for farmers. In Napa and Sonoma, we don’t have big, huge crops. Right now, I just need more man hours back in the field. It’s hard for us to find people.”
If work has to be halted for an extended period of time, Henpenn fears that the available workers will leave town in search of new work, as they often do at the end of the wine harvest.
He’s also losing business. Many of his wine country clients have understandably closed down this week, cancelling their usual orders.
“[The Restaurant at Meadowood] is closed, so they required no birds and cancelled their order. I had to find a home for those extra 100 birds,” he said. “So, I called the city accounts, asking, ‘Would you take 10 more birds?’ I had to filter to restaurants that were going to be open. Thankfully, I have that diversity for the squab farm.”
Downtown Napa’s 1313 Main is another restaurant that has closed its doors through next Wednesday, October 18. The restaurant is always closed on Monday and Tuesday, and had hoped to open on Wednesday, but executive chef Adam Ross (formerly of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc and The Restaurant at Meadowood) said the reservation book “got devastated.”
“We had about 40 reservations for Wednesday, 50 for Thursday, and when I checked back, it was down to like three and four, which is to be expected,” said Ross. “We did a little assessment of the restaurant itself; the whole place just smells like a campfire. It’s in the walls, the seats, the banquettes, everywhere.”
Yet the future is of greater concern. The local businesses depend heavily on tourism, so if people cancel their current travel plans, or the fires deter them from making future visits, the restaurants, wineries and shops could all be in big trouble.
“We saw it a little bit after the [2014 Napa Earthquake]. We really rely on that tourism. I’m worried for how that’s going to impact us, and how the wine industry will be affected,” he said.
Moreover, many restaurants and culinary programs will take a big hit in the kitchen—even those in San Francisco—if the local growers they depend on are damaged by the fires. For instance, Bee-Well Farms, Beltane Ranch and Oak Hill Farm have all reported to have suffered significant loss.
“They’re going to have to reach out to somebody else and try to find it,” said Henpenn. “A business like mine is all about relationships. If I lost my crop, my clients would have to go shopping and spend more time at a farmers’ market to find somebody else that hasn’t lost their crop.”
Ross is relieved that none of the growers he works with have been affected by the fires thus far, although Tenbrink Farms told him they were concerned, as the fire was getting closer to their fruit and walnut orchards.
“It’ll be devastating,” said Ross. “Especially in a place like Napa, where everyone is trying to get produce as close to them as possible. We rely a lot on Sonoma and the small farms.”