California’s Disaster and the Road to Recovery 

Earlier this year on a clear, warm evening, I was in California enjoying New York strip steak with a bottle of Nickel & Nickel 2014 Branding Iron Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a classic Napa Valley wine, bold and elegant with juicy blackberry and warm spices, and it went well with the perfectly seasoned, slightly funky flavors of the dry-aged meat.

Nickel & Nickel is like so many premium wineries—a labor of love built over decades by people who care deeply about their land and wines. It’s a beautiful, historic place dating from 1880 with a pre-Revolutionary War barn that was saved from demolition in New Hampshire, dismantled and reconstructed on site. When I heard the story of the barn, my first thought was, “Thank God it didn’t burn down in the fires!” Then I thought about the immense scope of the disaster, and how the fate of a barn might seem a minor consideration.

Last fall, Northern California experienced its worst wildfire season in history. In Napa, Sonoma and surrounding counties, 245,000 acres and 8,900 properties burned, including more than 2,800 homes. Forty-four people lost their lives. The wine industry suffered its share of losses, with about 30 wineries damaged. Napa’s Helena View Johnston, Roy Estate, White Rock Vineyards and Signorello Estate were completely destroyed. Ancient grape vines at Segassia Vineyard were killed. In Sonoma, Paradise Ridge is gone, as is the Gundlach Bundschu family home. At Backbone Vineyard in Mendocino, the winery and five years’ worth of wine were lost.

My friend Jim Silver is the general manager of Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyard, a 40-acre estate in the hills just east of St. Helena. He and his family moved there from Long Island four years ago to pursue his career. At the same time, his wife Claire became pregnant with their third child. It was a huge life change—they now live in Napa on the valley floor. When the Atlas Fire broke out on Sunday, October 8, it was up in the hills to the east, they sheltered in place. But over the hills to the west in Santa Rosa, the Tubbs Fire roared into residential areas and evacuations began immediately. Driven by 50-mile-per-hour winds, the fires quickly became enormous.

On Monday morning, Silver drove the half-hour up the Silverado trail to the winery. “The streets were totally deserted and there was a blanket of white smoke everywhere,” he said. Vineyards don’t burn easily as there’s no dead brush to fuel the fires. But the grapes are at risk for smoke taint, which is when phenols from burning wood are absorbed and create nasty flavors like burnt rubber and wet ashtray. It’s apparently nothing like the pleasant smoky effect from toasted oak barrels. If certain phenols, like guaiacol and cresol, measure over a certain amount, the grapes are totally unusable. Unfortunately, the smoke was also full of toxins from burning buildings and vehicles.

Anderson’s Conn Valley still had 25 acres of cabernet sauvignon grapes on the vine, launching the team into crisis mode. Six workers in masks picked around the clock. At the sorting table on the crush pad, it was all hands on deck. Everyone helped sort the picked grapes, including Silver’s wife, their children Nicole, Jacob and Audrey, and his mother Pat. After the grapes were safely in tanks, there was nothing to do but wait and hope.

The week that followed sounded like something out of an apocalyptic movie. For six days, flakes of ash fell like snow all over Napa Valley. They never knew where the fire would go next because the winds shifted so much. Information came in street by street, in real time. Because the call to evacuate would leave only minutes to escape, the family stayed together on the ground floor of their house. “We would sit there wondering if we dared fall asleep for fifteen minutes,” Silver recalled. He watched as a cell tower burned and fell over, taking out the service until Comcast brought in mobile units mounted on trucks. Electric power went out, leaving the family in darkness after sunset. Information was mostly spread by social media and word-of-mouth.

Yet the camaraderie of the community was stunning, according to Silver. “It really came from inside. Everyone helped everyone else.” But when all is said and done, the real tragedy is that people lost their lives and so many lost their homes. “Whole neighborhoods are gone and people are scattered to the four winds.”

Silver said everyone at Anderson’s Conn Valley are incredibly grateful that they were spared. The fire stopped just a third of a mile from Silver’s home and only 300 feet from owner Todd Anderson’s home on Atlas Peak. However tourism has still to recover. “It’s down about 40 percent. We don’t really know why. I guess the perception out there is that Napa Valley burnt down. But we’re open for business and we’d really like to see the people come back.”

It might seem flippant to suggest supporting Napa and Sonoma by drinking wine, but it’s not. The wine industry is the lifeblood of hundreds of thousands of people. They all came together to help each other when their world was burning and now we can help them rise from the ashes. Choose labels from small to medium-sized producers, not the giant corporations. Have wine shipped if you see something interesting online—I always find that the salespeople love talking to customers and sending wine. And it’s a great time to visit.

Even though the scope of the tragedy is huge, there’s reason to be grateful for the small things. The Nickel & Nickel barn is still standing, Anderson’s Conn Valley’s grapes were saved from the smoke, and the Silvers can continue creating their life in a beautiful place. And in rare moments, we might get to enjoy the soft California night, a Napa cabernet sauvignon and a nice, juicy steak.