Yesterday, our tasting room was open all day for the first time since Thursday, August 13th. We're open again today, and conditions are lovely. Tomorrow looks pretty safe. After that, well, we'll have to see. At least the heat wave that forced us to close most of last week has moved on, but there are still big fires burning to our north, and whether we'll be able to open will depend on where that smoke goes.
Welcome to 2020. Anyone waiting for things to go back to normal may be waiting quite a while. And I'm just not sure that wine lovers -- or wineries -- have fully realized that this uncertainty is likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, for tasting room operations over the next six months and more. For our part, I'm fully expecting that we'll have to be closed at least one day a week, on average, over the next six months. Why?
First, and most importantly, COVID, which has meant that wineries in California are restricted to outdoor service only. I agree that this is by far the safest way to open. In fact, even when we could have reopened indoors we restricted ourselves to outdoor service only, because the evidence is strong that the risk of COVID transmission is very low in distanced, outdoor settings, and higher in indoor spaces, even with distancing in place. Of course, being outside means you're at the mercy of the weather. But the virus itself is a source of uncertainty; we’ve already had a few instances locally of positive COVID cases at wineries, who have had to close for stretches to make sure their team and their spaces were safe.
It's not bad, most of the time, being outside in California. It's a big reason why people live here. And we got lucky that we had a moderate summer up until the last few weeks. But the climate that allows wine grapes to ripen is sunny and often hot. We do have some control; we installed extra shade, fans, and misters, and have found that with these measures we're able to lower the temperature roughly ten degrees. Plus, we're typically a little cooler than downtown or areas further east. And we do usually get a late afternoon breeze. But still, if it’s over 100, it’s not safe for our team or pleasant for guests. So, we close early and get people on their way before the heat of the day becomes blazing. We've had to do so eight days so far in August, including a six-day stretch between August 14th and 19th. Our average in Paso is a dozen 100+ days each summer. So expect at least a few more heat-related closures before fall.
The heat wave broke late last week. Unfortunately, we’ve got big fires throughout California, producing copious smoke. A few days ago we had the worst air quality in the world. At least with the heat, we could be open in the mornings. We typically took our last appointments at noon each day. That’s a little less than half our capacity, but it’s a lot better than nothing. But with air conditions unsafe, we couldn’t open at all August 20th, 21st, and 22nd. This dramatic satellite image shows the smoke blanketing much of California late last week:
Stunning view from space of the intense wildfires burning across Northern California covering the region in a sea of smoke. #LNULightningComplex #CZULightningComplex #SCULightningComplex #CAwx #CAfire pic.twitter.com/pr8NRRDSJw— US StormWatch (@GreatWinter2017) August 21, 2020
The primary culprit for our smoke is the River Fire in Monterey County to our north, which has burned some 48,000 acres since it was started by a cluster of lightning strikes a week ago. But there are fires burning all over California right now, with other big ones in Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Cruz. And I think there’s every reason to expect these to be burning for months.
Typically, wildfires in California’s forests burn until they are put out by the onset of the rainy season in early winter. Our state’s remarkable firefighters are mostly tasked with protecting structures and making sure that the fires aren’t endangering communities. Once a big fire gets going, with the accumulated fuel from California’s winter growth and exceptionally low summer humidity, it’s just too much to ask to put a fire out. And that’s true even when there are only a few fires burning. With dozens of big ones spreading resources thin, there’s no chance.
These fires were mostly started by lightning strikes from a rare summer thunderstorm week-before-last. We seem to have dodged the potential for more dry lightning overnight. But we’ve still got months before winter rains will end our fire season. Remember all those terrible California wine country fires in 2017 and 2018? Those were in October and November. It's still August. We've got a very long way to go.
Until then? We’re expecting to make day-by-day calls, informed by the local air quality, as to whether we can open for tasters. Most other California wineries will be the same. So if you’re thinking of going wine tasting, plan to check conditions. We'll be posting updates on our website each morning. If it looks like this, we won't be open. We appreciate your flexibility and patience, and promise you wouldn't want to be tasting here anyway.
The kicker? Once fire and summer heat season are over, it will be because of rain. Gentle rain can be handled with umbrellas and heaters. A Pacific storm, with heavy rain and wind? Wineries will have to close for those too. So get used to thinking about a visit to go wine tasting as like a visit to the beach. Sure, make your plans. But also plan to check local conditions in the morning. Welcome to the new (2020) normal.