Napa Wants to Know: What do the Fires Teach Us?

Kenneth Friedenreich


“The world watches television and they believed Napa Valley burned down.” So, Gladys Horiuchi, Director of Communications for the California Wine Institute told me last fall after this latest crisis ended. It only ended, of course, for TV news crews that sped off to the next train wreck.

Admittedly, flashing footage on the nightly news intoned gravely with knitted brow  leaves much of the story outside the frame. So it becomes tempting to contrive the narrative less as a record than a soap opera. I know – I was in the television news business for most of the 1990s. Being first is better than being accurate. Witness the Napa coverage at William Hill Winery. Located on Atlas Peak Road, this area sustained considerable conflagration and damage.

But there’s more folks!

The signage at the roadside announcing the name of this winery had fallen, a bit scorched worse for wear – but salvageable, if only as token of what happened. The various network news crews and others made sure to use the unfortunate sign as bump or lead image to introduce their “package” or from the scene standup coverage, all the while ignoring the property itself, spared the fire damage,

More contrivance characterized the narratives. Most fruit had come off the vines, was sorted, stemmed and crushed. The bulk of the big haul rested in fermentation tanks or was already in barrel. Speed is the essence of winemaking once grapes come in from the field. The images shown belied these circumstances, but the paradigm of broadcast news is Schadenfreude, the human predilection for savoring the next fellows’ miseries, augmented by a dose of class envy – bad things happening to the rich and famous.

What we didn’t see was the gallant stand at Regusci Winery on the Silverado Trail, where the the family and its extended family of field and wine workers battled back encroaching flames licking at the main buildings. They beat the flames back to save their business for another vintage.

Clos DuVal wine staff braved the Napa River bed to gain access to their winery, start emergency power, and make sure the atmosphere inside the place kept fermenting juice happy and stable, despite the chaos leaping here and there under the curtain of smoke and noise. “We didn’t not want our wine to taste like a wet campfire.”

A family member at Baldacci Vineyard and Winery a mile up the Trail observed that more than four months later, “Traffic is down in the Valley at hotels, restaurants, and in tasting rooms thanks to over-sensationalized news coverage. Hey, world – Napa Valley is still here and open for business.”

No question – damage appears at intervals as unpredictable as the path of the windswept flames last Fall. But the communities in the valley have coalesced and as Sally Murdoch of the Oregon Wine Board told me, having just put down its own wildfires, “...Oregonians turned around and sent money and even offered jobs to displaced Californian laborers when the Napa and Sonoma fires began (such as Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards offering jobs, housing and food for cellar workers who had lost theirs in the fires).”

Sometimes the common good trumps even the friendly rivalries between producers from different wine areas. After all, tourism drives the wine industry nearly as much as the vines.

A salient point largely ignored by mainstream media is a commonplace. Grape vines don’t burn like kindling, and their yards usually act as fire breaks. We’re not here to minimize the destruction and losses of life – this was a real crisis. But Californians dance upon sword edges.

One does, however, keep mindful that as we push against Nature, Mother Nature will at some time push back – and hard. This realization makes going right back in a matter of resilience though outsiders might still wonder. Until, indeed, they drink the wines.

On a beautiful afternoon in late winter, we sat in an open and canopied dining space on the  Taylor Family Vineyards enjoying a cold lunch with their three wines, each worth a second pass – a sauvignon  bon blanc, a cabernet franc, and a Cab blend. The small output and the reluctance of the family to become a public grange makes sampling these wines a pleasure worth advance planning.

Over lunch, Patricia Taylor recalled just how close the fires came. “My son called, and said, you had best look outside. The flames were coming down the slope and made hard left on that side of Silverado Trail, as if to avoid our side of the road. Good thing, too.” The recent vintages in our glasses behaved with the calm assurance of those people they please who know better than to believe what they see on television.



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