The eve of the one-year anniversary of the start of 2017's devastating wine-country wildfires brought warm temperatures, low humidity and violent wind gusts to Napa and Sonoma. The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning, alerting residents that conditions were ripe for wildfire combustion and rapid growth. While the night passed without event, fire was on everyone's minds.
The series of firestorms that tore through Northern California last year killed 44 people, burned 245,000 acres and destroyed 8,900 structures. One year later, wineries that were damaged have broken ground on new construction, many slowed by insufficient insurance policies. Sonoma residents are facing a housing shortage, with rebuilding delayed by a lack of workers.
Despite those hurdles, most residents are feeling optimistic about the future, thanks to a promising harvest and a desire to make the region even better than before the flames.
Rebirth in progress
"Today's an emotional day," said Rene Byck of Paradise Ridge Winery, interviewed Oct. 9. A year earlier, runaway flames consumed his Santa Rosa winery, tasting room, event space and thousands of bottles of wine. Byck described the weight of persistent local news coverage and events commemorating the anniversary. "Acting like nothing happened isn't a solution either," he admitted.
The rubble at the former Paradise Ridge tasting room, event space and winery has been cleared, and the owners are in the final stages of the permit process, hoping to start construction soon, with the goal of opening the tasting room and event space in October 2019. "The sooner we can rebuild the better," said Byck. "I know people are looking at us as a symbol of rebirth, or maybe recovery."
On the same day, in neighboring Napa, Ray Signorello broke ground on a new winery, fermentation building and caves, which he hopes to complete in two years. He spoke to a small crowd on the warm and sunny day, with grapes hanging on the vines and bins in the vineyards in anticipation of this year's harvest.
Signorello told the guests he was in Vancouver at the time of the fire when his wife, Tanya, called to tell him what was happening. Winemaker Pierre Birebent and a crew arrived to help battle the blaze but had to leave as the fire engulfed the surrounding area. "I remember tossing and turning and wondering what was left," recalled Signorello. But at the groundbreaking, he was positive about the new chapter in the winery's history. "We're going to build everything as quickly as we can," said Signorello. "And now I get to build something [based on] all that I've learned over the last 40 years in the wine industry."
Byck agrees it's a chance to rethink the business model, calling the rebuilding process a forced "do-over." "What does visiting wine country look like in 20 years?" he wondered. "We are exploring how to be relevant or maybe innovators." For one thing, he is considering reducing the number of events they host, but offering guests more exclusivity. For now, guests can visit Paradise Ridge's tasting room in nearby Kenwood. There are no plans to rebuild the winery; Paradise Ridge now makes wines offsite.
Mayacamas lost a visitor center next to the Napa winery in the blaze. But it's about to open a tasting room in downtown Napa's First Street Napa center before the end of the year, which should draw more visitors.
The good news for guests to Napa and Sonoma is that the before and after look much the same. Rains brought back vegetation to most areas scarred by fires. Much of the evidence of devastation is gone. Tourism is nearly back to pre-fire levels.
But it took months to clear the debris, and it will take many years to rebuild all of the destroyed structures, particularly the more than 5,200 homes that burned down in Sonoma. While it's estimated that authorities have issued building permits for about 2,500 homes, owners are struggling to find construction crews. Thousands more are having difficulty obtaining proper permits, many stymied by new building codes.
For wineries, the fires brought many lessons, including the importance of using fireproof materials and what kind of insurance to obtain. "We were worried about earthquake insurance," said Byck. "We had good insurance on the wine, but we were underinsured on the buildings." He estimates it will cost $14 million to replace all of the lost structures, but his insurance is only giving him $5 million.
Vintners are still struggling with what to do with the wine made from grapes hanging on the vine when the air was thick with smoke, causing possible smoke taint. Some winemakers who did not want to be identified report selling off wine in bulk or to distilleries. They're frustrated with insurance companies who didn't agree with what was a loss, or where the loss occurred and whether it was insured.
There are other lessons learned. The anniversary was commemorated with a test of the new Napa emergency text alert, designed to reach as many cellphones as possible in the area. Last year's fires came quickly.
And a week after the fire anniversary, when risky fire weather conditions appeared again, with winds gusting from 50 to 77 mph, local power company PG&E made the decision to cut electricity for about 17,500 customers in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. The blackout closed public schools, and local business owners grumbled about their losses, but PG&E executives say the tactic could help prevent the next big fire. Evidence suggests downed power lines were responsible for at least some of last year's blazes.
Vintners remain optimistic, particularly about the 2018 harvest, which is going along smoothly and with good yields. "The 2018 growing season has been great," said Mayacamas winemaker Braiden Albrecht. "We are very happy with the fruit quality."
It's a sentiment common in wine country, as winemakers focus on the positives. "You have to have a little hope," said Byck.
—With additional reporting from Kim Marcus
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