Wine Country Under Siege

Photo: Peter Marks

Photo: Peter Marks

A mandatory evacuation order forced some 5,000 Calistoga residents from their homes last night. For many, the escape from this picturesque northern Napa Valley town meant threading over-burdened cars and trucks through flame-encircled roadways. The few friends and colleagues that I’ve been able to reach say that even though sporadic evacuations are the norm, there’s nothing quite as shocking as a bang on the door and the words, “Get out now!” Take your pets and go.”

In 2014 I wrote the remarkable story of the struggles that Sue Mcnerney encountered in starting Le Chanceux Winery in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley. Today on her Facebook page, Sue wrote,

“It has been surreal being evacuated from your home at 3am running out with just the clothes on your back … The fires are spreading every day while we desperately try to hang onto hope that this will be over and our homes and businesses will be spared. Napa is now surrounded on both the East and West sides and we are all prepared, as much as we can be, to leave the valley.

Worried residents wait for the latest news from the limited sources available, but with power outages and cell towers destroyed, information is hard to come by. For many the only source of information is the rescue workers on the front line and the P.A. system announcements blaring across the landscape.

Peter Marks of Six Hands Winery near Lodi is safe from the flames but reports that everyone in the wine industry is affected by the fires. “There is simply no communication.” He reports, “No phones, no news, schools and businesses closed, trucking disrupted, and harvest suspended.”

Yesterday the reports relayed to me by friends in harm’s way bore the unsettling news that the inferno was at 0% containment. The terrible extent of the damage as of noon today was summed up in The Press Democrat;

“There are number of fires burning out of control right now,” said Todd Derum, division chief for Cal Fire’s Sonoma County division. “All of them have a potential to grow together.”

The exact paths of the 11 fires in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Mendocino counties was uncertain. Together they burned nearly 140,000 acres and claimed at least 23 lives, 13 of which happened in the Tubbs fire that ripped into Santa Rosa from Calistoga early Monday, destroying thousands of homes and businesses. An active finger of the 31,000-acre Tubbs fire continued to burn east of Windsor, from Shiloh ridge to Chalk Hill Road and Knights Valley.

The images taken in the aftermath of the Tubbs fire are hard to look at. Whereas a tornado rips homes from the ground and deposits them in a heap, the Tubbs fire destroyed everything in its path. Block after block, all that remains of the homes here are ghostly impressions of foundations covered in ash. Aside from the molten remains of automobiles there are no recognizable objects left behind. It’s a desolate, barren landscape that was teeming with life just 5 days ago.

Firefighters used bulldozers to cut a 30-foot wide strip around homes in the Oakmont section of Santa Rosa. My wife and I once contemplated relocating into this 4,500-member community situated in a narrow valley and surrounded by pristine mountains that reflect both brilliant sunrises and sunsets. Pitting fire against fire, the strip was set ablaze to create a barren front line of defense against the advancing flames, and as a result Oakmont remains whole.

Many others were not so lucky. The numbers reported by the Marin Independent Journal are staggering, “In Santa Rosa alone, 2,834 homes were destroyed, according to Mayor Chris Coursey who cited a preliminary city estimate. Some 400,000 square feet of commercial space was also destroyed, including a firehouse, the mayor said.”

Janie Mumm of Enkidu Winery in Sonoma said, “I hate to use this analogy but it’s like a war zone. We hear that thousands of homes have been destroyed, the streets are deserted except for the emergency vehicles.”

Last year I enjoyed a remarkable dinner at Signorello Winery situated on Napa’s Silverado Trail. While seated next to winemaker Pierre Birebent, we enjoyed the most spectacular sunset over and the vineyards of Oak Knoll, Yountville and the Mayacamas Mountains beyond. Those same mountains are ablaze today and last night forced the evacuation of Geyserville in northern Sonoma. Signorello was one of the first wineries to be breached by fire on Sunday night and today’s email from the Ray Signorello confirmed the worst,

The winery itself was destroyed in Sunday night’s Atlas Peak fire. Winemaker Pierre Birebent and the winemaking and vineyard teams were on property fighting the fire that evening but retreated when it overcame the building.

Today, the most important thing is that all 25 of our employees are safe. Pierre and I were finally able to access the property yesterday, and while the winery buildings themselves had essentially burned to rubble, the vineyards appeared to be in good shape—and ready to bear fruit for another 20 vintages. We can, and we will, rebuild the winery.

Up Soda Canyon Road behind Signorello, the White Rock Vineyard was also reported destroyed. The Vandendriessche family has owned this historic winery since 1870. Other wineries that have confirmed devastating damage are the Helena View Johnston Vineyards, Segassia Vineyard, VinRoc, Ancient Oak Cellars, Paradise Ridge Winery, Frey Vineyards, and Oster Wine Cellars. Initial reports had incorrectly stated that many iconic wineries had been destroyed, but these wineries now confirm that, although they have sustained some damage, their wineries are for the most part intact; Chateau St. Jean, Gundlach-Bundschu, Nicholson Ranch, William Hill Winery, and Robert Sinskey Vineyards.

Earlier this year I wrote about Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa. She gave this personal report of the devastation in Sonoma County,

All of us at Inman have been impacted in some way. Jon, who manages the tastings … was evacuated first from the Chalk Hill area, due to the Tubbs Fire, followed by my sister Diane … who is still unable to return to her home in the area of the Atlas Peak Fire. The fire burned buildings on Piner Road, where our winery is located, but did not cross Fulton Road, so we were safe from the flames. However, the air quality is poor and many roads are closed. Three vineyard crew members who lived in Coffey Park area have lost their homes; I have no idea what they will do.

As additional firefighters, police and National Guardsmen stream into northern California – the result of Governor Jerry Brown’s Declaration of Emergency – residents brace for another night of uncertainty and danger. Will they hose down their roofs with garden hoses and drift into an uneasy sleep, only to be woken by the sound of a first responder pounding on the door and demanding they, “Get out now!”?

This is a tight knit community and it will survive. To offer your support, the Napa Valley Register reports that these organizations are accepting donation for the relief efforts.

The Sonoma County Resilience Fund

The Napa Valley Community Foundation

The Community Foundation of Mendocino County


  1. Kathy Lamont
    Oct 13, 2017

    Heartbreaking to read about this devastation. Praying for all the lives at risk. Thanks, Don, for this personal view.

    • Don Carter
      Oct 13, 2017

      This was a tough one to write. As of today, communication seems worse than yesterday and I don’t know the fate of many friends and business acquaintances.

  2. Rob Conenello
    Oct 14, 2017

    Thank you for writing this as it is not just a news story. It makes it REAL. These are real people dealing with a devastating situation. Very inspiring to hear how some will make problems possibilities. Well done Don.

    • Don Carter
      Oct 14, 2017

      It felt inappropriate somehow to ask my acquaintances for information during this difficult time. I haven’t heard from most, but those who have responded sounded exhausted. They take shifts during the night to smell for smoke and search the surrounding mountains for the telltale orange glow that means a fire is near.

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