Home Wine Business Editorial Expert Editorial Expert Editorial: Crafting a Fire-Resilient Wine Estate

Expert Editorial: Crafting a Fire-Resilient Wine Estate

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Collaborating on wildfire resiliency shouldn’t be the sole responsibility
of the wineries themselves.

By Mike McNulty

The ravages of wildfire after wildfire have locked the California wine industry into a fight for survival — both financially and in a literal, physical sense. The Glass Fire of 2020, which consumed more than 67,000 acres and spread into Sonoma Valley, was the latest manifestation of a new and ongoing threat that requires collaborative solutions. 

Committing to wildfire preparedness

In response to this new paradigm, some larger wineries have moved significant portions of their operations to industrial facilities that are physically removed from the immediate threat of wildfire. 

That is not always an option for those wineries that trade on the physical splendor of wine country. Sprawling, tree-dappled vineyards, and picturesque rustic buildings are as important to the business of wineries as the wonderful wines they produce. Owners are trying to build resilience into these facilities without sacrificing their charm.

Fire needs fuel. Starving wildfires of combustible material reduces risk and buys precious time to react. Clearing out shrubbery, trees, and other fuel sources, such as dry leaves and forgotten wooden pallets, is crucial for a winery’s ongoing maintenance. Fuel management, enclosing eaves, and removing trees within defensible space zones are just a glimpse into the measures wineries need to adopt to make their properties more resilient. Sometimes, the work comes with a considerable cost – roadside fuel management alone can easily cost over $65,000 per mile or $6,500 per acre. 

Wildfire mitigation yields optimal results when neighboring businesses enact similar measures. The cost of hardening a property can be shared, and when a winery is nestled right on the edge of a vast forest with decades worth of built-up fuel loads, much more can be accomplished through collaboration.

Building alliances against risk

As climate disasters spread globally in scale and ferocity, it’s a reality that wineries in other regions would do well to heed. To survive, California wineries need all hands on deck.

Vintners and homeowners have made significant wildfire mitigation investments in areas with limited access to firefighting trucks and heavy equipment.  Many wineries have combined efforts for their mitigation strategies, eliminating redundancies and ensuring their efforts are coordinated to increase defensible space in their micro-communities. These areas include Pritchard Hill, Howell Mountain, and Spring Mountain. Collaboration and communication reaped tangible benefits, as evidenced by the containment and slowing of the Glass Fire, which could have had a much more destructive impact on Pritchard Hill, in particular.

That said, collaborating on wildfire resiliency shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the wineries themselves. When wineries put in the physical work of hardening their properties against wildfire risk, underwriters and property insurers can insert themselves as part of the solution in an effort to relieve wineries from a challenging insurance marketplace with limited — and expensive — capacity.

Resiliency and collaboration

Efforts are already underway to bridge gaps between stakeholders. Earlier this year, Galway Holdings hosted a Napa Valley Wildfire Resiliency Summit; it drew 250 attendees consisting of property leaders from 40 global insurance carriers, winery owners, wildfire experts, leaders in mitigation solutions, researchers, and local Napa Valley residents. The event initiated conversation and sharing of research and ideas between these stakeholders to work towards an insurable and, more importantly, resilient wine community.

Underwriters toured two iconic wineries to see the resiliency work done. They discussed mitigation strategies, compared best practices, and built an understanding of the reality on the ground in a way that risk models and satellite photography will never be able to capture.

We hope to replicate the exercise throughout California’s wildfire-prone wine regions. Businesses, first responders, government agencies, and insurance professionals must present a unified front in the face of wildfire threats. While collaboration is never easy work, it has been my experience that wineries have a powerful advantage when building these coalitions.

It is encouraging to see California wineries discover how much they can accomplish when they work together to create resiliency. There is no simple answer to the wine industry’s wildfire peril. But by working together, wineries can reveal new strategies for survival that may not have been achievable had each winery tackled wildfire mitigation in isolation. 

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Mike McNulty
Mike McNulty

Mike McNulty

Mike McNulty is managing principal at EPIC Insurance Brokers & Consultants. Mike holds more than 30 years of experience in the insurance industry, specializing in cost and risk management. He oversees the delivery of extensive insurance and risk management solutions to clients in the consumer beverage business.

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