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    Harvesting Hope in Wine Country

    By Liam P. Mayclem–

    When I think about Wine Country, what comes to mind is a place that celebrates life with great food, friends, and family. I think of conviviality and hospitality, and, of course, some of the world’s best wines. 

    More recently, Wine Country—Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, and Solano counties—has become fire country with devastating fires that have crushed the region year after year after year, turning dreams to ashes, reducing family wine businesses to rubble, and creating unfathomable hardships that will take years from which to recover.

    As the “Glass Fire” (named after Glass Mountain Road) that started September 27 continues to rage through Napa and parts of Sonoma counties, evacuation orders are being lifted and residents are heading home to survey the damage and loss. Tourists and Bay Area wine fans are wondering when they can visit again. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 

    (Cal Fire) this week reported that 1,235 structures have been destroyed by the Glass Fire alone, with another 242 damaged.

    Twenty plus wineries have been scorched or burnt completely to the ground. At least 66,840 acres in total have burned during the fire that is, as of this writing, still active.

    Wine Country had not yet even fully recovered from past fires. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire brought devastation to the region, the worst it had suffered in decades from Sonoma to Napa to Lake and Mendocino counties. Last year, the Kincaid Fire wiped out 77,758 acres and was the largest blaze of the 2019 CA wildfire season. Just six weeks ago, the LNU Lightning Complex Fires raged. In all, more than four million acres of California have burned this year.

    Liam Mayclem and winemaker Henrik Poulsen

    “It’s the new normal,” say so many. Gary Saperstein, founder of Out in the Vineyards and Gay Wine Week, hopes it is not, but said dealing with the Glass Fire was like déjà vu.

    Gary told me for the San Francisco Bay Times: “It’s reminiscent of the 2017 fires, because in that year, I was evacuated and fortunately the fires did not make it down the hill to me. Thank you to the firefighters who built their firewalls and protected my home.”

    A resident of Sonoma, Gary has been working in Wine Country hospitality for thirty plus years. When he heard of Meadowood and Calistoga Ranch being casualties of the recent fires, he took it personally. “This was really sad, truly sad to see the destruction,” he said. “You can’t help but think of everyone involved with those establishments: the jobs, the people who made them magical places. I know many of them. The sense of loss is truly, truly tragic.”

    With First Responders (2019)

    Both Calistoga Ranch and Meadowood Napa Valley resorts have a special place in my heart, too. I have enjoyed great meals and overnights stays, have hosted events, and filmed interviews on location at both properties. To this date, one of the most amazing meals of my life was a dinner at The Restaurant at Meadowood with my partner Rick. It was cooked by three Michelin-starred Chef Christopher Kostow. We all have memories like this, ones we shall forever cling to. The outpouring of love on the Meadowood Instagram page and elsewhere was heart-tugging with a star-studded Chef lineup of condolences:

    David Chang: “A magical place. I am so sorry.”

    Daniel Boulud: “So sorry. No words can replace it.”

    Dominique Crenn: “Heartbreaking loss of an iconic, gorgeous resort in Napa.”

    Mourad Lahlou: “… my heart is broken. Another icon fell. So many dreams, so much work.”

    Meadowood will rebuild and rebound, but hurting even more are those who lost their jobs and their homes. Some lost literally everything.

    The list of wineries damaged, devastated, or reduced to rubble by the recent fires conveys more than names on a wine bottle. The wineries are dreams fulfilled, and now many of those dreams are gone. Some of the impacted wineries had been in families for multiple generations. They are the history of the region without which there would be no Napa or Sonoma Wine Country.

    The entire Behrens family (Les, Lisa, Schatzi, Robin, Sean, Connie, and Ethan) of Behrens Family Winery on October 1 wrote:

    “As you have probably heard, our sweet little winery building, guest apartment and beloved Westcraft Trailer were burned to the ground in the Glass Fire on Monday morning. Our new tasting room and crush pad/tank barn are still standing and the chickens and their coop have survived.”

    They continued, “These are just buildings and they are gone, but our winery is the people and our 20 acres on Spring Mountain and we are still here and have wonderful wines that remain safe in our warehouse ready for you whenever you want. We have a big mess to clean up and that we will do as soon as it is safe, then we will move forward.”

    Burgess Cellars’ Howell Mountain winery was destroyed, although there was minimal damage to their vineyards. Cain Vineyard and Winery was largely destroyed, given the loss of the winery itself, Cain’s historic 1871 barn, barrels of the 2019 vintage, and this year’s new wine. Hourglass Winery incurred extensive damage, including the loss of a 162-year-old guest house and winemaking facility. One of my favorites, School House Vineyard on Spring Mountain since the 1950s, lost a house, but their wine stored off site was saved. These are just a handful of so many tragic stories.

    The following is a more complete list of the wineries, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses reported to have been lost or damaged in the fire:

    • Behrens Family Winery;
    • Bremer Family Winery;
    • Burgess Cellars;
    • Cain Vineyard and Winery;
    • Calistoga Ranch;
    • Castello di Amorosa;
    • Chateau Boswell;
    • Davis Estates;
    • Dutch Henry Winery;
    • Fairwinds Estate Winery;
    • Fantesca Estate;
    • Hourglass Winery;
    • Hunnicutt Wine Co;
    • Meadowood Napa Valley;
    • Merus Wines;
    • Newton Vineyard;
    • Paloma;
    • School House Vineyard;
    • Sherwin Family Vineyards;
    • Spring Mountain Vineyard;
    • Sterling Vineyards;
    • Tofanelli Vineyards;
    • Tuck Beckstoffer Vineyards.

    Those who escaped the fires have stories, too: of relief and of hurt for their unfortunate neighbors.

    The loss to winemakers of smoke-tainted grapes has also meant uncertainty around the 2020 wine vintage. Many grapes were already picked before the Glass Fire started. Jean-Charles Boisset—the winemaker I lovingly refer to as the Mayor of Wine Country— is the producer of JCB Unity wine and more, and is a supporter of Out In the Vineyard. He is hopeful that the smoke damage will be minimal.

    “2020 will be a challenging vintage, of course,” Boisset said. “We will only make and sell wines from this vintage that reflect our standards of winemaking excellence. Many of our best vineyards had been picked prior to the start of the Glass Fire and so we hope for the best.”

    Vintner Theodora Lee of Theopolis Vineyards, an LGBT Black female-owned and operated business, is confident for a smoke-free vintage: “We have picked our Symphony and Pinot Noir, and plan to pick our Petite Sirah this Thursday,” she told me. “As of now, the smoke will not impact our 2020 harvest.”

    Jeff Loomis of Loomis Estate Vineyards in Napa Valley is a close friend and he was among the first to step up and sponsor the fundraiser “ChefsGiving” after the 2017 fires. Now, in 2020, he has become a victim of the fires, but he has hope in his heart.

    “We worked very hard for the last 8 years to get perfect clusters, all properly spaced and centered in the fruit zone. Gorgeous fruit. [There was a] total loss of harvest due to the fires,” he said. “We dropped the fruit to the ground last week. We are heartbroken but optimistic. We will survive and thrive!”

    The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic was tough enough to swallow, and now there is such loss resulting from another round of fires. The months of September and October are important for Wine Country. It is the fall crush, money-making season when visitors venture here in droves, snaking along Highway 29 or through the long and winding Wine Country roads of the Russian River region. Gary says it is normally the most popular time of year for winemakers and tourists alike.

    “We’d be smelling the scent of grapes in the air, which I love every year,” he said. “And I literally was just thinking about that the other day as I was driving and there was all this intense smoke and the air quality was so bad. [The scent of grapes] is what we’re supposed to be smelling right now. We’re not getting that. So that is really sad.”

    Jean-Charles, however, says that, despite the fires, much of Wine Country is open for business and ready to receive you. “The Wine Country needs your love, prayers, and visits,” he said. “The smoke is clearing and our phenomenally talented first responders are containing the fires rapidly. We suggest you call any winery you plan to visit in advance, but know that we miss you and cannot wait for you to visit very soon.”

    Theodora added: “Donate funds to firefighters and small boutique wineries who lost everything. Please support the small lot wineries as they have lost the most. Larger operations will recover, but we must support the handcrafted and family-owned brands. We depend on your purchases to survive as we are mostly direct to consumers.”

    Gary is optimistic that 2021 will be a better year and is eager to take LGBTQI groups back out to the vineyards: “I know we in Wine Country will survive and I know we will thrive. As members of the LGBTQI community, we will always come out and support those who have supported us.”

    The recovery for many is on and the fight continues for others. Let’s raise a glass to the helpers, the first responders, and to the brave souls risking everything to save homes, lives, and livelihoods.

    To quote Tom Colicchio, who left this message on the Meadowood Instagram page: “Like a Phoenix you will rise.” And that speaks to the spirit of Wine Country folk—they are resilient, they are fighters, and they will all rise again with hope and strength in their hearts. 

    For More Information About the Featured Wineries and Businesses

    JCB Collection
    https://jcbcollection.com?

    Loomis Estate Vineyards
    https://www.loomiswine.com/

    Theopolis Vineyards
    https://www.theopolisvineyards.com/

    Out In the Vineyard
    https://www.outinthevineyard.com/

    School House Vineyard
    https://www.schoolhousevineyard.com/

    Meadowood Napa Valley
    https://www.meadowood.com/

    Calistoga Ranch
    https://aubergeresorts.com/calistogaranch/

    Donate

    Red Cross
    https://www.redcross.org/

    Napa Fire Relief Fund
    https://www.napavalleycf.org/2020napawildfiregiving/

    Sonoma Fire Relief
    https://sonomacountyfirerelief.org/about-us

    Emmy Award-winning radio and television personality Liam Mayclem is regularly featured on KPIX as well as KCBS, where he is the popular Foodie Chap. Born in London, Mayclem is now at home in the Bay Area, where he lives with his husband, photographer Rick Camargo. For more information: https://www.bookliam.com/

    Published on October 8, 2020