In the coastal vinelands of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, winter rains and dry summer heat are the norm. This year, the end-of-the-season heat was extreme, the chaparral in the North Coast woodlands was parched and, once ignited, it would not stop burning until the rains came.
David Darlington recorded the last tragic urban fire in Oakland in 1991, publishing a photo essay in Audobon Magazine and a story on the environmental causes in the East Bay Express. He was the first to alert me to the North Coast fi res on the morning of Monday, October 9, after the winds had swept one of them from the hills above Calistoga, up Petrified Forest Road, across the Mayacamas and down into Santa Rosa. By Tuesday, the day of our Top 100 tasting, the smoke had descended on San Francisco, raising an air quality alert. Darlington joined us for a four-hour respite from what felt like a North Coast apocalypse, the fires barely five percent contained. Several winemakers and attendees at the event had already been evacuated from their homes and wineries but came to the event nonetheless; others left early to join their families as new evacuation orders came in.
In Napa Valley, the fires raged on Atlas Peak, in the hills surrounding Coombsville on the east side of the city of Napa, and in the hills around Calistoga at the north end of the valley. Those fires had ripped across the western hills and took out a large swath of the city of Santa Rosa, crossing Highway 101 to incinerate Coffey Park as well.
The danger and anxiety continued for more than a week before the winds finally calmed and humid air moved in. Then the grim toll of the losses began to accrue: We were relieved to hear Jerry Seps and his family at Storybook Mountain, so close to the origins of the Tubbs Fire in Calistoga, were safe, but saddened to hear he lost much of his inventory of older wines, his zinfandels that aged so beautifully. Bettina Sichel at Laurel Glen on Sonoma Mountain was safe, but she lost her house and all her belongings. Ray Signorello’s winery in Stags Leap had burned, as had Frey in Mendocino. But the most harrowing scenes came out of Santa Rosa, where the fire had consumed the northern third of the city and had taken many lives.
The wine industry, used to First World problems, is faced with a range of deeper crises: loss of loved ones, loss of property, a severe housing shortage for the people who work in vineyards and cellars (some of them undocumented and fearful of the consequences of accepting aid), the toxins in the ash and rubble of many burned homes.
Guests at our Top 100 event were among the earliest donors to fi re disaster relief, participating in a silent auction of mature vintages of Top 100 wines we pulled from our cellar. They contributed more than $4,000 that evening, in one of hundreds of fund-raising efforts now taking place across the US to aid the displaced and to help rebuild California’s North Coast wine country. Open a bottle of California cabernet, open the pages of this issue to David Darlington’s essay on the ecology of wildfires on the Pacific coast (page 28), and consider opening your wallet to help those who have suffered from this latest disaster. Prior to the fi res, we had already committed a portion of our income from this issue to relief efforts on Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Now, after a rapid succession of hurricanes, terrorist shootings and wildfires, it’s a struggle not to feel disaster fatigue. But it’s the last thing we can afford.
illustration by Vivian Ho
This story appears in the print issue of December 2017.
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