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“We want people to know we’re still here.”

Gowri Chandra
November 22, 2017

The Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, as the sun dipped behind the hills of Napa and Sonoma, five hundred people sat down to dinner in the vineyards of Domaine Carneros by Taittinger (yes, the same family of Champagne fame). The 504-foot table straddled the county line—guests on the right were seated in Sonoma, those on the left were in Napa. It was a poetic show of solidarity.

Tyler Florence got up to make a toast. “This has been the biggest wildfire,” he said. “We lost over 300,000 acres, we lost over 3,000 buildings and homes, and we lost some of our dear neighbors that aren’t here with us. But it could have been a lot worse, and our brave firefighters and EMT were there to protect us, like they always are.” Everyone raised their glasses to the policemen and first responders, who were guests of honor.

Florence partnered with Visit California, the state tourism board, to host this fundraiser, fittingly called "The Grateful Table." With tickets at $500 a pop, 100% of proceeds will be equally distributed to four non-profits: the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, the Sonoma County Resilience Fund, the Mendocino County Disaster Fund and the California Restaurant Association Foundation.

The theme that evening was, for the most part, gratitude: it could have been a lot worse. You keep hearing people say it over and over. Driving through Napa and Sonoma, most of the countryside is startlingly lush and green. “It’s really the only time of the year it’s like this,” says Kristina Shideler. She’s the winemaker at Arrowood Winery, which has vineyards all over Sonoma county—it was largely unaffected by the recent fires. That is to say, none of their vineyards or buildings were burned, although smoke may have affected 10% of grapes that were still on the vine when the fires hit. (All the rest had been just harvested.)

Grapevines act as a natural flame retardant, Shideler points out, because the tilled earth between rows is devoid of organic material—so there’s literally nothing to burn. It’s pretty hard for a well groomed vineyard to catch fire, she says, although you might see periphery vines that have been singed. Driving through wine country, you can see clean lines where the just-burnt ash stops, and the verdant hedges begin.

According to Napa Valley Vintners, a non-profit representing the region’s winemakers, only about five of Napa’s five hundred wineries were significantly damaged by fire—that is to say, only five had a building partially or completely burn down. Furthermore, only about 8% of vine acreage was burned or singed in Napa; many of these plants may very well bud again next spring, and it’s hard to gauge lasting effects until then. Perhaps most impactfully though, an average 90% of all Napa grapes were already in tank at the time that the fires hit.

“There’s a lot of conception that Sonoma and Napa have completely burned and are inhabitable,” says Clint Smith, of Arrowood Winery. “A lot of people are visiting from S.F. and the Bay, but people from out of state are canceling their trips.”

Dylan Elliot, who works at Boisset Family Estates, owns a handful of wineries in the region. He acknowledges that having to shutter tasting rooms for two weeks during peak tourist season caused a not-insignificant financial hit. The worst part, though, is that this hit is being prolonged unnecessarily.

“People are cancelling their trips in April because they think this place is just ruined,” Elliot says. “We want people to know we’re still here.”

French Laundry alum Ari Weiswasser, now chef and owner of Glen Ellen Star, also had to close down his restaurant for two weeks. He ended up donating about $11,000-worth of perishables in his walk-in. “We just didn’t want it to go to waste,” he said. Abandoning his usual fare of wood-fired branzino and hand-cut rigatoni, he assembled massive burritos on a food truck to deliver to first responders. “You want something easily transportable so they can drop it down,” he says.

Now, however, he’s really seeing an uptick in locals dining out. On a recent Monday night, his restaurant was packed. “This is definitely not normal for this time of year, for a Monday night,” he says. “We’re getting people coming in three to four times a week. And we’re trying to reciprocate the appreciation to fellow businesses.” He joined Florence in cheffing The Grateful Table dinner, along with fifteen other local chefs. All this is to say, restaurants were affected, too: but they’re up and running now, perhaps better than ever.

And as for the actual wine itself? Food & Wine's executive wine editor Ray Isle, who was on the ground during the wildfires, noted that this year’s vintage will be largely unaffected. Many growers already had half their harvest in tank, at least; the rest are carefully testing their grapes for smoke taint, or even throwing out that crop altogether.

Don Van Staavern, who has over forty-five years of winemaking experience in Napa and Sonoma, works at Tyge William Cellars and consults for several wineries. At Tyge, they made the decision to not harvest the 50% of the grapes that were still on the vines when the fires hit. Instead, they opted to file for crop insurance, which only compensates a portion of the estimated value.

For a smaller winery that specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, it is admittedly a lot worse—Cab Sauv grapes ripen later, and most were still not ready for harvest when the fires hit. At Gundlach Bundschu Winery, the oldest family run winery in the state, the owners lost their longtime family home—only the fireplace is still standing. They lost 20% of their harvest with a portion of their vineyard being burned; it included some of their highest priced wines.

Katie Bundschu, their daughter, is a sixth-generation winemaker. She’s grateful it wasn’t worse. “We are just so, so thankful right now,” she says. “Everyone came together and showed so much support. There are restaurants who only want to feature Napa and Sonoma wine, there are distributors setting up funds, there are so many people in the wine and spirits industry that are trying to help revitalize Napa and Sonoma wines. And we’re so grateful.”