The Future of Napa Valley Wine — and How It's Evolving Following Years of Devastating Wildfires

Here's what top Napa Valley winemakers are doing to ensure the region's longevity and legacy.

Aerial view of TOR Wines Vineyards
Photo: Courtesy of TOR Wines

There are many factors critics write about when discussing the uncertainty of Napa’s future: climate change, sustainability, overtourism, and quality, to name a few. The themes all present themselves as hurdles for the future of wine, but industry veterans recognize a pattern within them. As they explain, these aren’t new problems.

“History is the great teacher,'' says Tor Kenward, vintner and proprietor of Tor Wines. “What does our history tell us about droughts, fires, and potential overdevelopment in an agricultural zone? Many answers to our big questions today are buried in the past.”

Kenward himself has been in the valley for 50 years, so he's able to speak to the adaptations he’s made, which have provided a foundation for the next generation. Perhaps, then, the most important thing is anticipating how each of these varying themes affects the livelihoods of wine industry workers — from suppliers to farmers, and winemakers to distributors — and responding accordingly. 

“[Napa] is the leading region for innovation and technology; we have no government regulations and no controls on how we can make wines in each of our own microclimates,” shares Priyanka French, winemaker at Signorello Estate, emphasizing that the freedom of the valley is comforting for Napa’s future when compared to other wine regions around the globe. The freedom allows Napa farmers and winemakers to experiment with new techniques and the latest viticulture technology to ensure the utmost health and protection of the vines and vineyards. 

Vineyards of Beckstoffer
Courtesy of Beckstoffer Vineyards

“Close surveillance by the grower gives us early warning of possible damages, and modern technology gives us the tools to address the situation,” says Andy Beckstoffer, owner of Beckstoffer Vineyards, stressing that the availability of viticulture technology ranges from drought-resistant rootstocks and vineyard architecture (vineyard row direction, vine structure to reduce heat damage) to operating procedures and reliance on moisture- and heat-measuring devices. 

How each applies to the aforementioned stressors in the valley varies depending on the concern. From fires to sustainability to quality control, winemakers explain how they're embracing new technology to solve these problems before they become bigger hurdles.

Climate Change and Wildfires

At the end of 2021, Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service reported a combined 2.5 million acres burned, and in 2020, that reflected 4.3 million acres burned. The five-year average of acres burned prior totaled 1.6 million, depicting the indisputable increase in wildfire activity and destruction in Napa Valley. 

A row of fire damaged grapevines at a vineyard on September 30, 2020 in St. Helena, California
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“The most pressing things on our minds are the fires, which will require state and federal coordination to properly solve,” says Sabrina Persson, vintner at Stalworth and Hess Persson Estates. At Stalworth, wildfire smoke rendered the 2020 grape crops unusable for the second year since arriving in the valley in 2012 (the other year grapes were unusable was 2017). Given the scale of the issue, however, Persson recognizes that wineries need to invest in their own tools to reduce the response time to a fire outbreak. 

Persson mentions that Napa County has already invested in infrared towers to help detect fire outbreaks. To increase coverage, Safe Napa also established the IQ FireWatch system, optical sensors that can detect smoke day or night and immediately notify authorities. “If that can be coordinated with improved aerial resources, then we have the ability to catch these fires before they get out of control,” says Persson, referencing the likes of drones. 

Kenward agrees with Persson, adding that “we can bring more high-tech into firefighting and forest management." But he also advises that winemakers go beyond this; to educate themselves to better understand fire and water management. “This is not about growing different grapes or harvesting earlier,” says Kenward on the standard changes that vintners have made to combat the fire season starting earlier and earlier. Instead, wineries can invest in things like irrigation systems that improve water efficiency, as well as protective technology that not only increases vineyard safety, but also efficiency. “Different canopy management systems and netting methods might even make better wines.”


The farming industry as a whole is struggling with converting to more sustainable methods. French summarizes the paradox: “There's a delicate balance between maintaining sustainability and quality.” 

Just like with produce from the grocery store, quality is paramount when it comes to making exceptional wine, French explains. However, sustainable farming — particularly organic farming, which Signorello Estate has followed since 2008 — requires more effort and resources than conventional techniques. 

Tor Keyword and team working on making wine
Courtesy of TOR Wines

Standardized by the USDA National Organic Program, the three-year certification process of transitioning from conventional to organic farming “is a significant endeavor,” says Persson, who's currently in the midst of converting all of Hess Persson Estates’ vineyards to organic (about 550 planted acres). 

While many vineyards recognize the organic certification as a beacon of sustainability, there’s more that needs to be done, including renewable energy, regenerative farming, and preserving the environment around the vines. Beckstoffer says, “Wine is a ‘plant-based’ product, so the place where the vine is planted is of extreme importance. We must continue to present Napa Valley as primarily an agricultural paradise and not just a tourist destination.” 

Kenward adds, “Napa Valley fought for several decades to be an official agricultural preserve. Developers fought hard with money and threats, but a handful of dedicated vintners established the Agricultural Preserve we enjoy and should celebrate openly today. We can never forget our wines from the land, and if we abuse it, we will lose it.”

Diversity and Engaging New Audiences

Diversity, in both the grape varieties and educating the next generation, is another considerable task for today’s winemakers. Beckstoffer has previously spoken about the greatest threat to Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons being millennials who misunderstand the variety as something of their grandparents’ generation — and are also unwilling to spend the hefty price for Napa’s star variety. This has led to innovation in the vineyards, where winemakers are focusing on how to preserve the status of the most planted grape in the valley, while still appealing to younger audiences.

“In the last five to six years, we’ve seen a return toward greater diversity and range of flavors in the wines Napa is producing,” says Persson, citing a number of reasons for the shift. “It’s positive for Napa as there’s a broader range of expressions celebrating the diverse terroir that Napa has to offer.”

Not only are the expressions of certain varieties changing, but the faces of winemakers and attention to farmers are making strides, too. The industry has never been an easy one to break into, especially for those coming from certain ethnic or financial backgrounds. French explains that she personally works with organizations like The Two Eighty Project, which empowers anyone to learn how to make, manage, and sell wine by providing educational and financial opportunities to students interested in viticulture. 

As the first Indian national to complete her master’s degree in viticulture and enology at U.C. Davis, French focuses on social change and mentorship. In addition to supporting The Two Eighty Project, she works with Wine Unify, which provides scholarships toward Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses, as well as the Bâtonnage, a mentorship program with a focus on networking and experience.

Apart from outside agencies, French explains how wineries can also do their part to empower employees — Signorello, for example, used the pandemic to educate those with professional licenses, from wine education to driving commercial vehicles. Practices like these can trickle down to consumer education, which French stresses as the most important thing wine drinkers can do to ensure the longevity of Napa Valley wines: “Support the wineries that support issues you believe in.”


A saying as old as time, "quality over quantity" remains paramount for the integrity of Napa wine. “The Napa brand legacy was built on the highest quality over a long period of years,” says Beckstoffer, noting that the quality of a wine isn’t a singular occurrence. In order for a good wine to reach the market, quality must start — and be constant — across all stages of production, from the terroir and farming to the harvest, winemaking, and aging. 

Though the cost of farming is contextually expensive in Napa Valley, Beckstoffer stresses that the only way to sustain quality is through lower vineyard yields. It’s a different method than other regions in the state — and across the nation — but then again, that’s the reputation Napa’s earned. Luckily, Persson notes, a bigger trend she’s witnessed is consumers prioritizing quality over quantity when it comes to the wine they drink. “It’s certainly a healthier way to live and it supports the investments needed to keep pushing for better quality,” says Persson.

“Napa Valley’s future has and will be built on the quality of its wines first and foremost,” says Kenward, providing a call to action for upcoming and established brands alike. “It really is that simple.”

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