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Paradise Lost: How a Tiny Sonoma Winery Became a Symbol of Resilience

San Francisco's editor on the making of a photographic icon in Wine Country.

 

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.

To hear Rene Byck tell it, his family’s winery, Paradise Ridge, was never a true landmark in Sonoma County. Opened by his parents, Walter and Marijke, in 1994 and now run by Rene and his sister Sonia Byck-Barwick, Paradise Ridge “was just a boutique winery in Santa Rosa,” he says, one with a modest customer base, a small payroll, and a bustling business in weddings, having hosted over 1,000 nuptials, including Rene’s own.

What Paradise Ridge did have, however, was an incredible view of the Russian River valley to the west, as well as a knack for amassing eye-pleasing works of art, dozens of which dotted five acres of the property and beckoned visitors to wander and rest amid a grove of ancient oaks. After Paradise Ridge was decimated by the Tubbs fire, which roared over the mountains on October 9, the Bycks were amazed that their pretty little winery in the Santa Rosa hills had become something much more than that.

Suddenly and quite strangely, their land was a symbol of all that had been lost in the North Bay fires and of all that we hope will survive. Even while their winemaking facility, tasting room, three onsite dwellings, and four barns were completely destroyed, almost every piece of art on the Bycks’ property emerged from the firestorm unscathed. Foremost among them is a nearly two-story-tall steel sculpture of the word love by Marin artist Laura Kimpton. With the help of social media, it was seen around the world—and now, thanks to the Bycks and to photographer Christie Hemm Klok, it appears on this magazine’s cover.

For me, the Love sculpture holds a personal appeal on top of its obvious symbolism . I was first told about its semi-miraculous survival by my longtime friend Carolyn Smith, who lives in Santa Rosa with her husband and five-year-old son, Zachary. Carolyn, now a special-ed teacher, used to work as a part-time event staffer at Paradise Ridge. Like so many thousands of others, she was awakened on the night of the fire by someone pounding on her door—a neighbor, urging them to leave, now. She leapt out of bed, grabbed a few random things, and sped away in her car with Zachary while her husband, Trevor, stayed behind to assist other neighbors. Their house and their neighborhood survived, and they were able to return a week later. But Trevor’s childhood home, located about a mile away, was destroyed.

For Carolyn and her family, as for Rene and his, this is now a time to both tabulate losses and count personal blessings. Rene estimates that 80 percent of their vineyard is still likely healthy—they won’t know for sure until the vines come out of dormancy in the spring. But two of their employees, a married couple, lost their home and now face an uncertain future. At the Santa Rosa school where Rene’s daughter, Adianka, is enrolled, close to a quarter of the families lost their homes. Thousands of neighbors in Fountaingrove did as well, some likely never to return. His heart aches for these people.

The cliché that wine country will come back stronger than ever—well, it’s complicated. For renters who lost everything, for farmworkers now without jobs, for undocumented immigrants lacking any sort of government safety net, a tough life just got inordinately tougher. It’s hard to see how they will emerge stronger from this.

But for the Bycks, the prognosis may turn out to be true. Rene says that Paradise Ridge will be entirely rebuilt, and that its unsolicited fame as a symbol of resilience in the face of disaster will actually drive more people to the winery when it reopens, he hopes, in 2019. They plan on creating an onsite exhibit about the fires. “I think,” he says solemnly, “we’re going to become a fairly popular destination for people who want to learn what happened.”

You can hear the sadness in his voice when he says this. It’s certainly not the future he and his family anticipated. But it’s the one they now face, and so all they can do is work, and plan, and hope.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco magazine

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