How the blackout hit California's wineries

On Wednesday, 9 October, California's electricity was shut off in a series of rolling blackouts. Jeff Siegel found out what happened next.

Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash
Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash

No electricity, no running water. Tom Hixson, a Napa retiree, said the scene reminded him of what happens just before a hurricane: "There was a run on services – ATMs were drained of money, stations ran out of gas, ice and staple groceries were all gone."

Last week, PG&E, northern California's largest utility, turned off the power to millions of customers in California, home to some of the world’s top wine regions. The company's goal was to prevent a repeat of last year's devastating wine country wildfires, some of which were caused by sparks from faulty PG&E equipment—and one of which, the Camp Fire in Butte County, killed more than 80 people. The losses from the fires eventually forced the utility into bankruptcy, and state regulators wanted to make sure the same thing didn't happen again.

But while wineries were thankful there were no wildfire, they have been left counting the cost to their bottom line, while residents wonder when the next shut-off is coming.

Living without power

Jim Caudill, a wine marketer, keeps horses at his home in Bennett Valley in rural Sonoma County. By the second day that his power was out, he says, "the horses were eye-balling me as their water troughs drew down. We're all electric, so that meant the wells couldn't pump water."

Power was cut to the Silicon Valley Bank branch in St. Helena, Napa County, so it had to close. Meanwhile, outside of Santa Rosa, a magazine publisher left work early to keep an eye on his home, just in case something happened when the power went out. And says Calistoga antiques dealer Al Dobbs, no electricity meant no running water at his Napa Valley residence, either. Which meant no shower and no morning coffee for four days –"and you don't want to see me without a shower or my coffee in the morning for four days," he says.
"I think a lot of us were wondering how this would work, even if we thought it might have been a good idea in theory," says David Stevens, who owns retailer 750 Wines in the area.  He lost electricity for four days at home and at his shop; the result was deciding to grow a beard. "How do they decide between residential and retail?" Stevens asked." How do they decide which part of a neighborhood keeps power and which part loses it? There were houses without electricity, but the houses across the street had it. And how do they decide when to turn the electricity back on?"

In fact, the power outages seemed random. The electricity stayed on in Healdsburg in Sonona County, which isn't part of PG&E. But in Santa Rosa, 20 minutes away along Hwy 101 and the scene of some of last year's worst wildfires, the power stayed off for four days.

Residents also had to drive without traffic signals for much of the week, since the lights stopped working when the power went off. The result? Stevens said he was surprised at how well drivers made do, but others weren't as happy. One Napa marketer, who asked not to be named, says "all I experienced were idiots that don't know what to do at a traffic light that's not operating. There were more than a few accidents." 

The area's wineries, reported local media, seemed to cope. Many had backup generators, so that winemaking, including fermentation and crush, wasn't affected.

"Small wineries were affected to a much greater extent than larger wineries, who had resources and ability to obtain and wire in backup generators," says Fred Peterson, whose family-owned Peterson Winery outside of Healdsburg lost power for just over three days. "Short of finding a sufficiently big generator, the chances of which were slim and pricey, all we could do is bring in grapes ready to harvest and get crushed and press tanks ready to press before power shut down. We did both. Now playing catch up on lots of work. When you stack losing electricity on top of extreme fire danger during the other anxiety and stress of harvest, it’s pretty bad."

One side effect did hit the bottom line: Dozens of weddings scheduled at wineries throughout Napa and Sonoma – and this is one of the busiest times of the year for weddings – had to be canceled or postponed or held in the dark.

And at least one family made the best of a bad situation.

"It wasn’t really that hard on us and the kids," says Michael Wangbickler, who runs Balzac Communications. "We were prepared. It was just like camping for two days – and we got to spend a lot of time cuddling."

Power was restored Friday, with the San Francisco Chronicle reporting that losses for businesses and residents could be $1bn or more.

Jeff Siegel

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