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People in shock at how fast fire moved

Wildfires raze California vineyards and wineries

Charred wine barrels hiss and smoke amid the orange embers of northern California's wildfires, and the smell of burnt alcohol from intact vats is strong.

Nearby, a tasting room is a heap of blackened debris.

And Paradise Ridge Winery is no longer heaven for wine buffs. Situated on a hill overlooking Santa Rosa wine country, which is hugely popular with tourists, it is one of the wineries destroyed by fierce fires that broke out on Sunday.

Many of such wineries - some a hundred years old - have been damaged and part of the wine crop is threatened.

"I have worked in the region for 25 years, but I have not seen anything like this," said Purdue University's professor of oenology Christian Butzke.

"People are in shock about how quickly this moved."

The fires have killed 15 people so far and forced thousands to evacuate their homes. Nearly 150 people are unaccounted for, and some 2,000 buildings have been devoured by flames.

Mr Ray Johnson, head of the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University, said the fires have had a major impact on the wine industry in Santa Rosa.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which shot to world fame in 1976 when it beat some French wines in a competition, had to be evacuated and damage there has yet to be assessed.

Mr Ray Signorello Jr, head of the Signorello Estate winery that was destroyed by the fires, said on Facebook that its staff fought the blaze overnight on Sunday but had to pull back when the flames reached the main building.

Winemaker Joe Nielsen of Donelan Family Wines told the San Francisco Chronicle: "It looks like a bombing run here. Just chimneys and burnt-out cars and cooked trees."

The nightmare continued on Tuesday evening as the fires burned on.

Prof Butzke said it would take years to replant burned vines.

At this time of year, most of the grapes have been harvested. But the best grapes - Cabernet and Merlot, which yield the best and most expensive wine - are picked later. So only half of them had been gathered, he said.

Those grapes may be tainted by smoke from the fires and thus unusable.

This in turn will reduce production and cause prices to rise over the next two or three years, said Prof Butzke. But he said overall the effect on the 60,000ha of vineyards along California's north coast would be relatively minor.

The winemaking industry accounts for 46,000 jobs and more than US$13 billion (S$16 billion) in revenue just for Napa County.

Nationwide, the industry generates US$50 billion in revenue and every year 3.5 million tourists visit the California wine country.

Prof Butzke insisted that California is "so innovative and quick to rebuild" that the tourism industry should survive. - AFP

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