Q & A with Winemaker Paul Steinauer
October 20, 2017
Wildfire boundaries in relation to Flora Springs vineyard locations.
How did you hear about the fire and where were you? We were at home, and up at 2:00 am, as Robin had to get ready for an early flight to NY. I noticed the power was off, and it smelled of smoke. We looked out the bedroom window, and there was an inferno against the black sky to the Southwest. (Of course, I’m sure it was further than it looked, but it looked darn close.)
What has your experience been during the last week and a half? Controlled chaos perhaps? At the onset, it was unpredictable with the high winds so we called all our family first thing. I headed to the winery once I knew everyone was safe and I could see the fire was coming over the ridges between Oakville and Rutherford just south of winery. It burned for days in and around that area, as well as directly behind the winery, so we monitored it closely while getting to work. Fortunately, Flora Springs has a backup generator that can run the entire winery which enabled us to continue working even when the power grid went down.
We were cognoscente of the dangerous situation. Calistoga was closed so the northern route was shut off, Silverado Trail was closed and the eastern route was shut off and that left only one way in and one way out, south on Hwy 29. It was not a great feeling knowing that the fire could certainly move east and block the only road out. If the worst-case scenario happened, we had a backup plan. Fortunately for us, Flora Springs has an extensive cave system. If the fire came over the ridge from Sugar Loaf it would most likely mean that it is an eastern wind. The only material to burn at the winery would be the roof. If we opened the front doors to the main cellar and sought refuge in the back of the cave we would be safe. It would probably pass in less than an hour anyway. I located a 36V power inverter that quickly connects to our electric forklift so if the power went out, and the generator failed, we could still run two 4-foot box fans at the cave entrance to push any smoke out, and away from cave portal just as a safety precaution.
When you first arrived on property what were your first concerns? Evaluating exact location of the fire, and ensuring our people, winery and houses were safe. Since the power was out, we had to ensure there was a sufficient amount of diesel in the generator tank. We converted a plastic 300-gallon lees tank into a diesel tank, shuttled diesel from our filling station to the generator, and siphoned enough diesel to fill the generator with 400 gallons, with another 300 gallons on standby. Since we had 30 or so fermentations going at that time, it was most critical to keep our refrigeration system up and running to manage the fermentation temperatures.
Do you think the vineyards served beneficially as a fire break? Thankfully none of Flora Springs’ vineyards have been damaged. Unlike how the vineyards were portrayed in the movie, “A Walk in Clouds,” they don’t really ignite like that. They do make a decent fire break especially if they are tilled between the rows versus cover between rows. As far as winery protection on the south side, if West Zinfandel Lane continued west, you would run into our Cabernet Franc vineyard in block K. If you drew a straight-line west from Inglewood Lane on the North side of the property, you would run into our cabernet vineyard block N, and Merlot vineyard block L. Block J (Hillside Reserve) vineyard runs in-between those blocks connecting the entire length with contiguous vineyard. In addition, the winery has 4 reservoirs as well.
All the fruit was in before any fire started…will you speak to your perception of anticipated vintage quality? We are very happy with how color, aromatics as well as the flavor profiles have developed in the fermenters. We picked most of our fruit a bit earlier this year, primarily due to the heatwaves we experienced in September. The fruit held up well, but often the skins require additional hang time to resolve and soften the tannins. As a result, we managed the fermentations in such a way as to press the wine off its skins at, or before dryness to avoid any additional skin contact and risk any astringent tannin characteristics.
Will Flora Springs be doing anything differently in the vineyards or on the property to protect against future fire threat? I think we have a pretty good grasp of the property and risks thereof. We keep our grasses low, have vineyards surrounding the winery with reservoirs with pump stations. Dedicated water tanks for fire only, as well as 2 other tanks that can be utilized as fire hydrants or sprinkler systems etc.