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How the North Bay Fires Tore Down Our Illusions About Wine Country

Myth and meaning in a vision of the California good life.

The Atlas fire spews smoke over the hills east of Napa on October 9.

 

This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

The Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park is one of the many unremarkable corners of wine country. It’s somewhere you’d blink and miss as you drove Highway 101—box stores and gas stations on the frontage road hiding a quiet subdivision behind them. It’s a place where teachers and healthcare workers live in modest homes, along with the wine industry’s rank and file and immigrants who’ve settled into a quiet North Bay lifestyle.

Directly to the north and west, Santa Rosa gives itself back over to vineyard land. I’ve often taken that back way into Coffey Park: detouring at the PG&E substation and driving along the vines as they give way to shady residential streets. It’s a place a lot of wine people know—not because it is glamorous, but because it houses several warehouse wineries. It’s a pleasantly unimproved slice of Sonoma County, one that always feels comfortable to me, because while California has no end of beautiful landscapes, much of the real work of wine occurs in places like this.

Coffey Park is now known as ground zero for the most destructive wildfires in California history. The images of its devastation are reminiscent, perhaps, of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Katrina, although in this case most of the houses are gone—leaving little more than ash behind. As the former wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, I’ve spent enough time writing about wildfires to understand that bad things can happen to people who live in wildland-interface areas, where highrisk forests abut cities. But that isn’t Coffey Park. By Northern California’s fire-taunting standards, it is as safe a place as any.

As such, it became a potent reminder that our view of wine country often isn’t all that accurate. California in general excels at fabricating a vision of the good life, and its wine image makers, especially, have honed a myth over the decades, refashioning Napa and Sonoma as rural escapist idylls. The fires pierced that facade. And they did so, in part, by confronting us with the destruction of places like Coffey Park. They provided a tragic reminder that Napa and Sonoma (and Mendocino and Lake Counties to the north, which also burned) are real places with flesh-and-blood problems and awkward realities. That includes a yawning gap between rich and poor and a large and essential population of immigrants, many of them undocumented, without whom California wine doesn’t exist.

None of which is to diminish just how much the wine industry was brutalized by these fires. Several winery facilities, including Signorello Estate and White Rock Vineyards in Napa, were essentially destroyed, and the inferno took a heavy toll in places like Napa’s Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder. Still, the vineyards themselves fared relatively well—escaping severe damage in part because they’re the defi nition of a perfect firebreak, a landscape that can slow a fire’s spread. And grapevines are hearty plants, which is why, despite having lost several hundred vines that she and her husband farm on Napa’s densely forested Mount Veeder, Carole Meredith was relatively sanguine. “It’s even possible those vines are still alive,” she told me. It’s not a hasty assessment, as she’s also the nation’s foremost vine geneticist and knows a thing or two about vine physiology. “They’ve been burned, but we don’t know how deep those burns are.”

The real toll, it’s now clear, is on a more human level. The sheer intensity of these fires sets them apart; they were whipped up by winds stronger than 60 miles per hour, with convection powerful enough to create tornado-like vortices and flip over cars. Many had no warning before they had to flee, including my friend Tony McClung, who sells wine around the country and worked for a prominent Sonoma winery. He and his family lived on Napa’s fire-ravaged east side and first heard of the evacuations, he told me, when a police officer banged on their door just after his kids had returned from a nearby swimming pool: “He literally carried my eight-year-old daughter out in a blanket. My wife carried out my six-year-old daughter naked in a blanket.” When flames arrived just 20 minutes later, the blaze was hot enough to turn the McClungs’ home to ash and to melt their car into a hardened puddle of metal in the street.

His story reiterates a key lesson: Fire doesn’t care. It’s the great equalizer, ravaging rich and poor alike. And its devastation unfolds in ways that aren’t obvious. As I thought about communities like Coffey Park, I kept coming back to a concern I’ve held for a long time: We love places like Sonoma and Napa, yet we don’t always see them for what they are. We trade on that sunny fantasy of the good life. Here, I’ve sinned too, leaning many times on the bounty of California as a narrative trope.

If there’s anything to see clearly now that the smoke has cleared, it’s how the mirage of these places disappears as you close in. They have growing levels of poverty and homelessness, and almost nowhere is there a more tortuous relationship between the elite, in the form of winery owners who control some of the country’s most expensive real estate, and the laborers who make their dreams a reality. That labor, mostly immigrant, is in ever shorter supply. So is housing—now perilously so, given the thousands of homes burned.

These are the moral and economic complexities of making wine in wine country today. And while none of this may cross our minds when we uncork a bottle, it should. When I talked to McClung, who is very much part of the middle-class core of the wine business, he was bringing his family back from San Francisco to stay at a friend’s guest cottage. He was, reasonably, worn out after not only losing his house but navigating insurance claims, contemplating a new mortgage, and figuring out where to enroll his daughters in school. “It’s just overwhelming,” he told me. “I don’t know what comes next.”

One thing that pretty much everyone agrees must come next: The rest of us should keep buying and drinking local wine—and, as things settle down, return to wine country and spend money. It’s not simply that economic losses are projected at anywhere from $3 billion to $6 billion, but also that the fires came during Napa and Sonoma’s busiest time of year, when the small restaurants and shops that rely on tourists finally start to turn a profit. Small wineries will need cash in coming months to complete the vintage, pay suppliers, and meet payroll.

Perhaps, then, if there’s any good to come out of what’s happened, it might be that we have an opportunity not only to support Sonoma and Napa, but to see them in their full complexity and to acknowledge their economic realities. And it’s a chance to go back and reconnect them to their agricultural roots, which are too often obscured as success arrives. If we can do that, we have a chance to make our love for wine country far more meaningful—and enduring.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the online magazine PUNCH.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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