The Malibu Coast AVA has been dramatically affected by the still-ongoing Woolsey fire in Southern California. As of Tuesday morning, Los Angeles and Ventura County officials stated that the fire has burned 96,370 acres and some 370 homes and residences have been destroyed.
“We are still in the process of gathering information from our membership about how they fared in the fire” says Greg Barnett, President of the MCVGGA and owner of NABU winery in Westlake Village. “We have been in contact with at least half of them, and we’ve learned there’s been extensive damage to virtually all of the vineyards and wineries throughout the AVA. We are thankful that there were no reports of injuries and that everyone’s family got to safety before the inferno reached their property. The speed with which the fire escalated was terrifying. Having just gone through the most difficult harvest in the history of the AVA, it is dispiriting to have it followed up by such a devastating fire. We hope that our members are able to move on from this and rebuild. Some were more fortunate than others but we’re doing what we can to help each other out.”
Of the vintners Barnett has spoken to, damage reported has ranged from burnt vines around the perimeter of vineyards, all the way up to total devastation of vineyards, residences, and outbuildings. The destruction is particularly in evidence along the Kanan Dume corridor running from Agoura Hills to the ocean, but Lobo/Triunfo Canyon and Corral Canyon have also sustained substantial losses. At this time the area remains closed to non-emergency vehicles and power has not been restored in much of the region, but the Alliance will continue gathering information to ascertain the level of damage to vineyards within the AVA.
Several of the MCVGGA members have reported the following about their experiences during and after the Woolsey fire:
Richard Hirsh is the owner of Cielo Vineyards, clustered near the corner of Mulholland Highway and Kanan Dume Road with Saddle Peak Wines and Malibu Rocky Oaks Vineyard. “Most everybody around me is gone” he says. “Without a doubt, being surrounded by 10,000 vines saved my house and barn. We turned the vineyard’s drip irrigation system on and began soaking our olive grove as soon as we got word that the fire was headed our way. I’d planned to stay, but when you see the ferocity of 100 foot flames, you feel their heat and the absolute roar of the sound I knew that no way could I stick around to try to save the property. It’s such a violent thing and we were hit hard. We’ll probably need to replant 3000-4000 vines. All the stakes burned down, the posts are gone, the netting virtually evaporated, and the irrigation hoses melted away. But the vineyard protected the house. From Cielo you see everything within a couple of miles, and it’s almost all destroyed. My heart goes out to see Saddle Rock, across the street, and they just lost everything but the animals. House, vineyards, everything. Even with the significant damage we sustained, we feel like we were spared and we’re going to replant and rebuild.”
“It’s complete, total devastation up here, no real good news to be found anywhere on my block” says Jim Palmer of Malibu Vineyard. “My vineyard was in Decker Canyon, and the entire place is all burned out, with 15 houses gone. Anything in the canyons is totally wiped out. I’m speechless – a friend who’s a fireman sent me a picture of what’s left of my house and vineyard and everything’s just ash, totally leveled. “
John Gooden’s Montage Vineyard is on Winding Way, between Latigo Canyon and Kanan Dume road. Gooden said he “stayed behind and saved the house and vineyard. No fire trucks came to our neighborhood the night of the fire. Southern California Edison shut down the power about 6:45 pm and we lost all water pressure to the pumps. We used shovels and picks to fight the flames back until water came back on early Sunday morning and we spent all day fighting hot spots. It’s a moonscape around here today, very surreal. Thank God for the wine cellar in the house! I’ve been drinking as much Malibu Coast wine as I can.”
“Having the vineyard around my home saved it” said Don Schmitz of Malibu Solstice Vineyard. “It is far superior to the limited brush clearance typically allowed by the County. My ranch is at the top of a ridge above Latigo Canyon and took the full force of a worst-case scenario firestorm. 50 miles-per-hour winds, upslope fire front, 200 foot flame lengths, and no fire department helicopters or fire engines anywhere around. I personally watched the wall of flames race across the canyon burning through 40-year-old brush that was 15 feet tall, in large stands of oak trees. The fire front raced up and over the ranch, burning intensely, but when it got to the vineyard, the flames laid down to a foot tall, burning very light, flashy fuels but going out quickly. Every other structure on the ranch was completely immolated, and all vehicles were burned down to the metal frames. However, the house itself, which is surrounded on all four sides by the vineyard, was literally unscathed.”
Krystian Orlinski of South Slope Malibu Winery on Foos Road said that his vineyard received a little damage and the flames took his guest house, work shed, and water supply, but his house is still standing and his wife and kids are safe in a hotel away from the danger. The veteran Reuters reporter was on assignment shooting video of the fire a mile from his vineyard when he got trapped in a firestorm. “I almost lost my life” he said. “A huge blaze on the Malibu golf course basically created its own weather, an immense tornado-like fire storm. I was recording visuals from the bottom of a long driveway off of Mulholland when the wind shifted, and the only escape was back up that driveway. I’ve worked for Reuters for 28 years, doing my time in the war zones and covering difficult stories, but this was just a whole other scene.” Orlinski has already placed a deposit on the material necessary to rebuild his water tanks and reestablish the vineyard.
The Malibu Coast AVA encompasses 44,590 acres within the 182,000 acres of the Santa Monica National Recreational Area in Southern California. The 40 vineyard members of the Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance (MCVGGA) have approximately 200 acres of vineyards planted within the AVA clustered along Kanan Dume Road between Agoura Hills and the Pacific Ocean.