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'In the Eye of the Storm': One Survivor's Experience of the Wine Country Fires

Amid chaos, hope.

 

We woke to heavy air, a black-and-orange sky, and no electricity or cell signal. We grabbed waters and crackers, fumbled for what seemed like an eternity with a car seat, and strapped in my confused three-year old, still clutching his stuffed bunny. My son and I sped south while my wife rushed to protect the Rutherford winery that her family had built more than 35 years ago.

Napa Valley and Sonoma are no strangers to disaster. Many times, we’ve seen smoke over the hillsides and wondered how the wineries might be affected. Three years ago, I walked the eerie, empty streets of downtown Napa examining the broken streets and crumbling historic buildings left by the 6.0 South Napa earthquake. I heard stories of lives lost and possessions and wine ruined. But in the early-morning hours of October 9, as my son and I tenuously inched through intersections with dark stoplights and past sirens, smoke, and a head-on collision, we watched a catastrophe unfold. Flames raced up the hillside and left black chaos where perfectly geometric vineyards had been hours earlier. We stared through smoke with bleak hope that the smoldering mounds weren’t the wineries and homes of our friends. We listened to the radio and heard reports of thousands of acres burning just over the mountains in Sonoma County. We were witnessing generations of work and family history burning. How long before these vineyards and wineries would make wine again and pour it for happy travelers? Ten years? Fifteen? For many, I fear, the answer will be never.

I got my son safely out of Napa Valley and drove back after dawn through smoke and falling ash to help my wife and her family. It was invigorating to pass the southbound exodus, and I arrived ready to fight. But somehow, the winery was in the eye of the storm. Black smoke was all around us, blue skies above. Unnatural and surreal, but there we were: untouched and, for now, safe. Tourists, if you can believe it, showed up: some afraid to drive south into the Atlas fire, others stubbornly refusing to give up on their dream vacations. So we made sandwiches in a candlelit winery kitchen, walked the dark barrel room with our headlamps on, and poured wine, all the while hearing impossible-to-confirm rumors of the losses our friends and their families had suffered.

After the fires die down, we’ll get back to work. We’ll try to find a way to crush, without electricity, the 20 tons of grapes (approximately 14,400 bottles) that my wife’s family just harvested before they go to waste. I have a small winery myself, and I’m told that all my barrels, grapes, and wine are gone. I hope that’s a rumor. But more than that, I hope for the safety of those fighting this fire. It is October 10 as I write this, and my mother-in-law refuses to leave her Rutherford home, as does her 97-year-old mother in Yountville. We’re worried about them, but they will have their way—just as Mother Nature will always have hers.

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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