With California’s largest wildfire ever uncomfortably close, Terra Sávia in Hopland hopes for the best
by Torrey Douglass
“We have a Mutual Admiration Society here,” says Yvonne Hall, referring to the supportive relationships that exist between the wineries and other businesses around Hopland. The tasting rooms recommend each other to visitors, figuring the longer folks stick around, the more they will fall in love with the small town charm and natural beauty of the “Somendo” zone just above the Sonoma/Mendocino county line.
Hall owns Terra Sávia Winery with her partner, Jurg Fischer, where they’ve grown grapes and olives organically since 2005 and 2008, respectively. The “Mutual Admiration Society” includes other olive growers like Filigreen Farms, who use Terra Sávia’s olive press to make their golden olive oil every fall. The granite wheel press is also available for regular folk, who can bring in their own olives for processing.
Hall and Fischer are devoted environmentalists, incorporating earth-friendly practices into their farming. Their olive orchard is 100% off-grid and was planted on open land to avoid removing any pre-existing trees. A small herd of eight Baby Doll sheep eat down the weeds, and rodent control comes in the form of three cats who also tend to lounge around the office, decreasing everyone’s blood pressure. They even keep a few goats to eat the cuttings from vineyard and bramble pruning. In the past, their labels featured endangered animals to raise awareness of their plight, and they make regular donations to local animal rescue organizations. Every decision made on the farm takes the well being of flora and fauna into account.
As of this writing, the largest wildfire in California history is burning on Hopland’s doorstep. Yvonne cites the animals as top of the list of things to save should it threaten them. But so far they’ve been fortunate. When asked if smoke from the fires has affected their crops, Yvonne says, “It’s too early to tell. There are good days and bad days, but we’ve been lucky. The afternoon winds come from the west and blow away the smoke.” On a recent day, the high point of their property, Duncan Peak, was hidden by the smoky air, but it eventually reemerged thanks to the winds. Ultimately, they’ll only discover if the smoke has impacted the fruit come harvest.
If that happens, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2008 the Lightning Complex fires filled much of Mendocino County with smoke, including Anderson Valley. The smoke poured over the ridge and settled in the Ukiah Valley flatlands where Terra Sávia’s vineyards grow. The Chardonnay and red wines were harvested earlier in the season and turned out fine, but the delicate and late-harvested Pinot Verdot did not fare so well.
There are no measures a grape farmer can take to protect against “smoke taint,” which leaves smoke compounds on the fruit and can result in a bitter, ashy aftertaste. They are entirely at the mercy of the fire and the weather during it. While there are post-harvest measures available— high-tech filtration being one of them—it is not a silver bullet, adds expense, and sometimes can’t overcome the bad rap a vintage can get when it contains fruit from a fire year.
For now the folks at Terra Sávia can do little more than wait out the fire, giving thanks for the firefighters working to contain it and the wind that keeps its smoke at bay. Farming, especially organic farming, is hardly an easy lifestyle, but its burdens are lightened when there’s a supportive community on hand to gather around a common purpose. No matter what happens, groups like Destination Hopland and the less formal Mutual Admiration Society will continue to sing the praises of the wine, food, and natural beauty abundant in the Somendo area.
Photos courtesy of Terra Sávia.
Torrey Douglass is a web and graphic designer living in Boonville with her husband, two children, and a constantly revolving population of pets and farm animals.