California’s devastating North Coast fires are in their second week now. Ten thousand firefighters, include some who came all the away from Australia, have been battling nearly 20 separate blazes that have killed more than 40 people and forced over 90,000 to flee the area. For every person who had to escape, or who was able to remain despite the heavily smoky air, or who came to deter the fire or aid refugees, there are dozens of stories. There are stories of terrible loss, unflappable optimism, and triumph against odds. Sadly, there has also been looting, price gouging, and exploitation.
There is a strong, central theme, though. And like the tireless heroics of the firefighters and the epic air battle against the flames, it will never be forgotten. It’s the way the wine and hospitality industry of Northern California came together to save property, maintain operations, support victims, and perhaps, save lives through a stunning display of kindness, determination, bravery, and selflessness.
This industry camaraderie has been manifested in many ways. Wineries that are distant from the affected areas, including in Lodi and beyond, offered storage space, supplies, and even fermentation tanks. Of course it’s not entirely practical for wineries to move their production counties away on the spur of the moment, so few were able to accept those offers. And fortunately, even some wineries whose vineyards and main building (or buildings) were destroyed, such as Signarello, found their fermentation and barrel rooms were intact, the wine safe.
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Other aid was offered closer to home, literally. As evacuations increased and shifted from one community to the next, winery personnel—not just winemakers—opened their doors to the displaced, providing space at their wineries and homes. And despite having lost their own homes, other people, such as Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, continued to actively help, and lead, the community.
One dramatic story from the front lines of the fire, among many, involves the James Cole Winery in the Stags Leap District. Just downhill from White Rock and Signarello Estate, both of which were destroyed, it was under siege from the Atlas fire very early. At one point, James Harder was sure the property would be lost.
“Fortunately,” Harder tells me, “Jim Regusci brought a whole team of people to help beat back the flames and clear away flammable material.” Regusci’s own winery, which he protected by creating open space with a tractor, is two and a half miles north on Silverado Trail from James Cole.
An overview of disaster relief efforts organized by the wine industry
For James Harder, it was a four-day battle. Because can’t return to an evacuation zone once you’ve left, he and others stayed on, working both fire and fermentations. At one point, a tall tree burst into flames and threatened to undo all their efforts. Harder’s hoses didn’t have the length or pressure to extinguish the fire. “Jim Regusci has a water tanker,” Harder says, “and he brought that down to help us. Eight of us maneuvered it into position and doused the tree.”
Regusci, who is also partners with Harder at a few wineries in Calistoga, was helpful with supplies too. “With no electricity, we were back to 18th-century winemaking,” Harder explains. “We were able to get to Regusci Winery with a golf cart and bringing back yeast and dry ice to start and control our fermentations. We’re cleaning with cases of bottled water. We feel very lucky to have made it through. Today our doors are open, the birds are singing, and we’re ready to pour some wine. Tomorrow we harvest another block. The grapes taste pretty good.”
Things were also tense up valley in Calistoga. On October 11, with the uncontained Tubbs fire approaching, residents were ordered to evacuate, among them Adam McClary of Gamling and McDuck winery. While there might not have been immediate danger, the wind-driven fire moved at up to 30 mph, and there was a very real risk that routes out of town could be cut off, leaving no avenue for escape if that became necessary.
Safely removed from town, McClary monitored the winery’s security cameras. He had active fermentations going on and worried that his forced absence would lead to losses. Having heard stories of looting, he was concerned when he saw someone enter the now abandoned winery. His alarm turned to delight when the interloper climbed the stairs next to the stainless steel fermentation tanks and began doing punch-downs. “Without that punch-down,” he says, “it’s $20,000 worth of grapes going to hell.”
“I think a lot of winemakers stayed despite evacuation orders,” McClary says. “It’s not a matter of creating havoc or being in the way,” he adds, “but it’s our livelihood.” With an element of Mission Impossible adventure, winemakers have dodged cops, kids on bikes, and news copters to get into their wineries unseen. One winemaker, who shall remain anonymous, confided to me, “There’s a lot of tragic shit going on, but you can’t help laughing a little at the absurdity of sneaking through yards and climbing fences to keep your business alive.”
Alison Crowe, who makes wine for several labels, all custom crush, benefited from the kindness of many in the industry. “Oh my goodness, it’s been crazy,” she tells me, “and we’ve all been helping each other through this. The crush crew at Coppola Geyserville stayed open to crush clients’ grapes; Monterey Wine Company in King City took some of my Napa Cabernet quickly, in an emergency, so I could get it out of the fire zone. Bill Knuttel, winemaker at Arcana on 8th St., where I crush Garnet and Picket Fence, lent me untoasted oak when I was concerned about fermenting on anything toasted, for fear of increasing smoke taint markers. Shauna Rosenblum offered me crush space at Rock Wall down in the East Bay.
“Matt Heil, of Copper Cane, has literally been my eyes and ears on the ground, and we’ve had many a 3 am conversation this week where we shared information on fire and wind conditions. He made it possible for me to sleep some nights. Kat Doescher, of Valley of the Moon, brought in a generator so we could at least power up the jackets and keep pumping things over. The heroics in the face of road closures, skeleton crews, and possible evacuations have been amazing.” Crowe herself helped others in kind, and by relaying steady, reliable information through social media.
There are many other stories of bravery, untiring work, and generosity—the van der Kamp family, for example, persevered at their vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, continually battling not just their own fires but those on neighboring properties. Most of these good deeds will never be widely known, nor are the heroes seeking recognition. Their beneficiaries will never forget, though, nor their gratitude diminish. And with fires still threatening in both Sonoma and Napa, the vintage goes on…
To find out how to contribute to Northern California wildfire relief, click here.
Fred Swan is an Oakland-based writer and educator on wine and spirits. Among his credentials are Certified Sommelier, WSET Diploma, French Wine Scholar, Sud-France Wine Master, Italian Wine Professional, and Certified Specialist of Wine.