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After Floods, Sonoma County Wine Industry Tallies Losses

Winemakers at Sebastopol complex suffered damage to tasting rooms and stored cases
Floodwaters from the Laguna de Santa Rosa swamped the Barlow district in Sebastopol, Calif.
Photo by: Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
Floodwaters from the Laguna de Santa Rosa swamped the Barlow district in Sebastopol, Calif.

Aaron Romano
Posted: March 7, 2019

Last week, a series of powerful storms inundated Sonoma County, dumping 7 inches of rain in Sebastopol and as much as 20 inches in Venado, an unincorporated community in the hills between Guerneville and Healdsburg, all in the span of just 48 hours. The ensuing floodwaters wreaked havoc in the area. The Barlow, a shopping district located at the eastern edge of Sebastopol and home to several wineries and tasting rooms, was one of the waterlogged areas. A week after the flooding began, owners and vintners are starting to assess the damage and pick up the pieces.

“It’s a big mess,” said Pax Mahle, owner and winemaker for Pax Wines. “We have sustained serious damage to our tasting room and winery, and have a full-time tasting room staff that is onsite helping with the cleanup," he added, while also expressing gratitude that they weren’t hit worse. The facility is also home to Carlo and Dante Mondavi’s Raen, as well as other boutique wineries such as Jolie-Laide, Jaimee Motley, Rootdown and Martha Stoumen.

Pax is one of two affected wineries with production on site. The other, Kosta Browne, did have some water inside the winery, but all of its equipment and inventory was safe. Chief marketing officer Carol Reber said they took every measure possible to safeguard the wines in barrel and bottle.

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While many areas flooded when the Russian River and its ancillary creeks rose, the Barlow lies in a flood plain adjacent to the Laguna de Santa Rosa Watershed. There was so much rainfall that there was nowhere for the water to go, and it pooled and swelled, eventually encroaching on the Barlow.

Some tenants have already re-opened for business, while others have suffered complete losses. Many are questioning the property owners’ preparedness, given that construction of the Barlow was only approved by city officials under the condition that a comprehensive flood plan be in place due to its location. Seven-foot flood locks were supposed to be deployed in the case of emergency. Tenants say that they were emailed a warning that the flood barriers may need to be installed. There was no further communication, and by the next morning, the Barlow was underwater.

“Basically we all went to bed thinking the worst-case scenario is that the floor would be wet the next day,” said Friedeman owner and winemaker Brooks Friedeman. “There was 51 inches of standing water. We lost all our furniture and electronics, and 93 cases of wine.”

Friedeman said they were preparing to send a wine shipment when the flooding occurred. “Normally we’d have about half that much wine, and from a winemaker’s standpoint, losing that much hard work stings.” Friedeman said geographic location was the determining factor of who took the most damage. His tasting room is probably second-closest to the watershed. Other businesses farther west suffered less water damage.

Another tasting room at the Barlow, MacPhail, was also hit hard. A spokesperson said the tasting room would be closed indefinitely. Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winner Zazu Kitchen + Farm also sustained water damage.

Mahle noted that flood insurance in a flood zone is cost-prohibitive, and no one in the area carries it. He expects to reopen in April, but said the reality is that he doesn’t know much yet. As of now, the buildings affected are considered inhabitable, but will need to be fully cleaned and inspected before business can resume.

The estimated flood damage in Sonoma County has totaled $155 million, including damages to approximately 1,900 homes and 578 businesses. Relief and fundraising efforts have been established for those affected.

“The next steps aren’t clear,” said Friedeman. “It’s going to be a heck of a process, but our fingers are crossed we can come back.”

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