Wildfires Destroy Homes and Iconic Wineries in Northern California Wine Country
It's getting to be like clockwork. Heading into the last weekend of September, my phone dings with a Red Flag Warning for the San Francisco Bay Area. This year, Saturday the 26th ushered in triple-digit temperatures, but that was all. Then a fire scanner picked up an image: A vegetation fire had ignited off Crystal Springs Road on Glass Mountain above Mending Wall Winery in St. Helena, California. Fueled by arid conditions and wind, and dubbed the Glass Fire, it spread rapidly in hills east of the Silverado Trail, growing from 20 acres at around 4 a.m. to over 800 in a matter of hours. As of Tuesday, October 6, 408 tankers and 2,774 firefighters were battling the blazes, which had grown to 66,848 acres and damaged 1,309 structures, nearly 570 of which were residential.
The Napa Valley communities of Angwin and Deer Park on Howell Mountain were in immediate danger, and the first evacuation orders came only about an hour later, before sunrise.
With the LNU Complex Fire, firefighters succeeded in stopping it from overtaking Angwin and Deer Park. The Glass Fire simply sped through them. By early evening, the nearby Meadowood resort at the foot of Howell Mountain and the adjoining Madrone Knoll community (where my mother-in-law has a home) were also under mandatory evacuation. I spent hours on Twitter, updating the feed, scouring it for any information. I found it extremely hard to find accurate information about where the fires were and what was in imminent danger. It was exhausting and aggravating.
At 6 a.m. I was awoken by an emergency call from my mother-in-law. She was safe in San Francisco, but her voice trembled. "The house is gone," she said through tears. Before I'd even really had time to process that thought I started seeing reports that some Napa Valley wineries and vineyards were burning, had burned, or were directly in the path of the Glass Fire. That's when the Twitter hysteria began, and rumors of complete and total devastation flooded feeds.
During an emergency like this one, it's hard to discern who is reporting legitimate news and who is simply a panic-stricken Tweeting bystander spreading misinformation.
For example: Images of flames roaring above Davis Estates, with its priceless art collection, would soon spawn a proclamation that it was all gone. In fact, the fire only burned parts of the estate vineyard, not the winery or grounds. Nearby, the famed Calistoga Ranch resort did suffer near-total losses, but rumors and false statements on social media reported that the Meadowood resort had burned completely. It did not. Several guest cottages did, along with the clubhouse and its two restaurants, one of them the three-Michelin-star The Restaurant at Meadowood, helmed by '09 F&W Best New Chef Christopher Kostow.
I spoke with Chef Kostow a few days after the fire. Clearly, he was still trying to process the destruction. "It's sad that the physical restaurant is gone, and all the wine and offices are gone, that's tragic," he said. "But the thought of the tether that connected all of the teams being eviscerated—that's really the thing that is most troubling. That's the thing we're trying to fix in whatever way we can, and as soon as we can."
Other verified reports of damage have filtered in over the past week, as the Glass Fire continued to burn (it's currently 50% contained). Hunnicutt Wine Co., just north of Meadowood, had been rumored lost, but employees who gained access to the estate confirmed that although their Stafford House was lost, and the landscaping was "toast," the main building with the tasting room, admin office, and production office had only suffered minimal damage. Similarly, though Melka Estates was in the path of the fire, Philippe and Cherie Melka's home and winery both emerged unscathed thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters on the scene. Sadly, a couple of structures burned, while their two-acre Montbleau Vineyard suffered extensive damage. And despite rumors that his tasting room had been incinerated, Ehren Jordan of Failla confirmed in an Instagram video that "everything is still standing, and we are stoked, but you can tell it was right down to the edge."
Many others did not emerge unscathed, though. The luxury boutique Black Rock Inn was reduced to ashes, and Chateau Boswell, a family-owned Napa mainstay founded four decades ago, was effectively destroyed.
To amplify the severity of the situation, on Sunday, September 27, the Shady Fire then erupted across the valley on the western side of Highway 29, endangering wineries and homes both on Diamond Mountain and in the Spring Mountain District.
Driven by strong winds, the Shady Fire barrelled over the Mayacamas Mountains down into Santa Rosa, through a corridor that had been spared during the 2017 Tubbs Fire, sending already traumatized residents into evacuation mode, and razing homes in the Skyhawk and Oakmont neighborhoods. In its path, it also inflicted severe damage to Castello di Amorosa, which lost a farmhouse and a massive cache of aging wine; however, the castle itself was spared.
On Spring Mountain, the fire destroyed a beautiful pagoda-like wine laboratory and the stunning French-inspired gardens at Newton Vineyard, which underwent a major redevelopment that was just completed last spring. While the underground caves appear to be in good condition, "We do not expect that any of the 2020 wine will be saved," reported Newton General Manager Jean-Baptiste Rivail. Newton, which is owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH, has already announced that it will rebuild. Even so, Rivail said, "When I moved to Newton, some of the people who had been around Spring Mountain for a long time said, 'Spring Mountain never burns.' But something has changed. We had an extremely hot year, record-high temperatures and almost no water, and everything was dry. You can't take anything for granted. It happens even where it's not supposed to." But he added, "Newton is more than just a place. It is the combination of a great terroir and great people, the team that makes the wine. We still have both."
At Abreu Vineyards, winemaker Brad Grimes confirmed that although Abreu's famed Madrona Ranch lies directly below Newton, it had been spared largely thanks to the efforts of owner David Abreu. "David and his sons and most of our crew were up there," Grimes said. They spent hours spraying down barns, vines, and oak trees with water. The loss of Newton and of so many friends' homes had been "immensely hard on everyone. You can see it on faces," he said. But he added that the Abreu crew were doing everything they could, including offering barrel space to other wineries, and sending their crews to help put out spot fires. Above all, they were trying not to dwell on the losses. "You have to believe there's a positive outcome. We have to keep moving forward."
Still, in the face of these fires, that can be difficult. At Cain Vineyard, about two miles away, owners Chris Howell and Katie Lazar were also evacuated. Later, they learned that their winery, containing the 2020 and 2019 vintages, their home, and the historic barn on the property had perished in the flames (the rest of their wines are safely stored in Napa). Other vintners suffered similar losses: Behrens Family Winery owners Lisa Drinkward and Les Behrens lost their winery, but not their home. Winemaker Matt Sherwin of Sherwin Family Winery on Spring Mountain also reported losing his family's winery; however, their home was spared.
The emotional and economic fallout from destruction like this extends to the rest of the wine community here as well. Kerrin Laz, the owner of K. Laz Wine Collection, a boutique Yountville-based wine retailer, told me, "It feels like such a heavy loss, because we work with so many of these wineries and businesses. And I have friends who work at Bond, Bryant, and Harlan who lost homes in Deer Park and along the west side of White Sulphur Springs road, where the Hoffman Institute was also engulfed in flames."
Chris Hall, the owner of Long Meadow Ranch and Chardonnay icon Stony Hill, is also a volunteer firefighter in Rutherford. He spent 36 hours with a task force crew from a Cal Fire, helping keep fires from consuming the historic Stony Hill estate.
There, two blazes—one coming from the northwest and one coming from the south—met and merged. They essentially encircled Hall and the Calfire crews. "But none of the trees really burned," he explained. "It was mostly slow-burning brush and grasses, so all the redwoods and firs that create this majestic view from the property, those are all intact. And we saved all the structures, and there's no vineyard damage."
When I spoke to Hall, he was at Marston Family Vineyards up on Spring Mountain, where he'd gone to check on the property. He confirmed that, tragically, the Marston winery had burned, but that the family home was safe. Hall was also keeping an eye on Long Meadow Ranch, nearby off White Hall Lane, and said that St. Helena's fire chief was protecting that zone, and crews were up there ready. "I'm feeling optimistic," he said, "but it all depends on the winds."
One of the problems facing many of these vintners is that, even if their wineries haven't burned down and they have saved their wines, the potential for the wines to be affected by the tremendous amount of smoke in the air still remains. Under normal circumstances, mornings in wine country are typically greeted with a layer of cool, refreshing Pacific Ocean fog, but over the past week smoke from the Glass and Shady fires has been so thick in some places that wineries and homes just off Silverado Trail, for instance, were impossible to see. And even with an N95 mask, there was no getting around an intense campfire smell.
In the eastern hills of Santa Rosa, above the Skyhawk community that was ravaged by the Shady Fire, Scott Shultz of Jolie-Laide Wines hiked two miles to a storage facility that caught fire. Shultz was hoping to save 90 barrels of wine stored in a concrete bunker built into a hillside, which had not caught fire. "We're hopeful that the wines are okay," he said, but acknowledged that, in the end, everything would depend upon lab test results.
This is a different situation from 2017, when the fires didn't arrive until late October, after most grapes had been harvested. The 2018 Camp Fire and 2019 Kincade Fire were also late in the season. This year, though, the LNU Complex fire, impacting Napa and Sonoma, and the CZU Complex Fire, which affected the Santa Cruz Mountains, started in mid-August, the result of a rare northern California lightning storm—and right during the beginning of harvest. Vineyards closest to the fires were impacted the most, but even those further away have had to monitor smoke levels carefully.
For Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, that has meant not bottling a 2020 vintage. "We didn't even crush grapes," he told me. "When you've done this for 37 years, and you're hardwired to make wines, it's a gut-wrencher. It came down to a quality decision for Shafer. We did micro fermentations, and [the wine was] just not up to Shafer quality standards. I don't want to lose any customers. I can't run that risk."
Stephanie Honig, a third-generation family member of Honig Vineyard and Winery, said that most of their Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are on the valley floor and weren't exposed to much smoke during the LNU Complex Fire. They were optimistic about a healthy harvest. But when the Glass Fire erupted, "that hope was shattered," she said. "Honig will skip a vintage. We've had the property since 1964 and have made wine since 1980 and we've never missed a vintage of Cabernet. But it's not worth it to put something in the market that is not of the quality we always deliver." (Honig did produce Sauvignon Blanc from grapes harvested earlier in the season; Stephanie Honig said that it "is really good, but yields were low, so there's less of it.")
Chef Kostow may have summed up the situation best. "We can all agree these fires are related to climate change, and nothing is happening right now that is going to mitigate the effects of climate change in the near future," he said. "We can't change that fact, and I don't know what that means."
The Oso Vineyard, owned by Michael Mondavi Family Estate, was spared in the LNU Complex Fire, but suffered severe damage in the Glass Fire. Rob Mondavi Jr., winemaker and co-founder, believes that strict regulations are partly to blame. "What we are allowed to do as landowners has been predicated by the state and Bay Area Air Quality Management District," he said, "and part of the argument is if we have different regulations in place on how to manage the understory of forested areas, it begs the question, will fires that we will always have here in California become more manageable so they don't become megafires? There has to be a collective effort to acknowledge climate change and to find a solution to allow appropriate forest management."
On Monday, September 28, after scrolling and scrolling through the Glass Fire twitter feed, I came upon a post by wine writer Alder Yarrow. As I scrolled, I happened upon a picture of his "badass firefighting sister," Shannon Shaffer-Killey. It showed her hosing down spot fires in the Madrone Knoll neighborhood above Meadowood, and realized quickly that she was no more than about 25 yards from where my mother-in-law's house was. I reached out to Alder and asked if she might confirm that the house had in fact burned.
The next morning an email came through with a photo. I was stunned: The house was still standing, though burn lines ran right up to it. I immediately called my mother-in-law, and two days of grief over its loss turned to indescribable relief and joy. But it was tempered for me by the thought of what the rest of the valley was still going through. The week since then has been dire and destructive, and the fires are still burning.