Win­ery own­ers re­turn with heartache and de­ter­mi­na­tion

The Mercury News Weekend - - LOCAL NEWS - By Mary Or­lin mor­lin@ba­yare­anews­

For 26 years, Charles John­ston has grown caber­net sauvi­gnon and caber­net franc vines or­gan­i­cally off High­way 128 in Cal­is­toga.

The Tubbs fire tore into north­ern Napa Val­ley late Sun­day night. By Mon­day morn­ing, John­ston re­turned to his He­lena View John­ston win­ery to find his le­gacy in ashes.

“Ev­ery­thing was an­ni­hi­lated and the scorched earth is un­be­liev­able,” he said Wed­nes­day.

It is a story of heartache and loss shared by many in the Napa and Sonoma ar­eas, as some of the dozen still rag­ing fires shifted enough to let win­ery own­ers and wine­mak­ers re­turn to con­firm their worst fears.

John­ston and his fam­ily were or­dered to evac­u­ate late Sun­day night as the Tubbs fire moved as fast was as 100 feet ev­ery five min­utes. “You could see propane tanks ex­plode,” he said. “You could hear them and then there would be a burst of flames.”

He didn’t stay away for long. John­ston fol­lowed two horse trail­ers per­mit­ted into the burn area to check things out on Mon­day.

He lost ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing pho­to­graphs and fam­ily me­men­tos that brought a sense of home and fam­ily to the two-story, 26 foot tall Cana­dian-cedar wood Swis­sChalet---

style win­ery build­ing.

“The vine­yard is gone, too,” John­ston said. “For all in­tents and pur­poses, prob­a­bly two thirds of the vines will die; the oth­ers will prob­a­bly come out OK but we’ll have to wait and see.”

What greeted John­ston was painful to see. Large 150 to 200 foot trees had fallen; a few trunks were still burn­ing. Many wine bot­tles lay bro­ken; oth­ers were still pop­ping and ex­plod­ing. Fire hoses left on the grounds had holes burned into them.

On Sept. 21, John­ston marked his win­ery’s 25th an­niver­sary. He had just har­vested parts of his vine­yard, pro­cess­ing the grapes Satur­day af­ter­noon. He lost all that wine. “The fer­menters were melted, noth­ing was saved,” he said.

That in­cludes 30,000 bot­tles of Napa Val­ley red wine (mostly caber­net sauvi­gnon) and nearly 12,000 gal­lons of wine in bar­rels. While John­ston had a wine cave-like stor­age fa­cil­ity, it was no match for the fire. “All the bar­rels were burned out,” he said.

To top it all off, John­ston’s 71st birth­day was Tues­day, the sec­ond full day of the wild­fires. Butwhile his win­ery and vine­yards look like a bombed out area, John­ston re­mains op­ti­mistic.

“I feel more em­pa­thy and strong feel­ing of hope and prayers for peo­ple who have lost ev­ery­thing but have very lit­tle means of re­cov­er­ing,” he said. “It’s one of those things you never ex­pect will hap­pen to you. We will cer­tainly re­build.”

John­ston rep­re­sents that can-do spirit and re­silience found through­out Wine Coun­try.

Vint­ner Tuck Beck­stof­fer was at his Soda Canyon ranch in Napa late Sun­day night fight­ing off some of the At­las Fire’s first flames. The long­time fire­fighter had just be­gun de­vel­op­ing the ranch for vine­yards. His first visit back was Wed­nes­day.

“Iwas shocked,” Beck­stof­fer said. “It is ab­so­lute, com­plete dev­as­ta­tion in Soda Canyon. There is very lit­tle stand­ing up there, and dead an­i­mals are on the road.”

He said he wor­ries that more death and de­struc­tion will be dis­cov­ered as peo­ple are al­lowed back into the fire-rav­aged area.

Beck­stof­fer also sur­veyed dam­age at one of the big­gest prop­er­ties, Stage­coach Vine­yard, owned by E. & J. Gallo. He found giant oak trees, downed by the winds, that were snapped in half. He saw the af­ter­math of an in­tense in­ferno.

“The edges any­where close to the brush around the vine­yard are re­ally trashed, and that is the same with all the vine­yards in that area,” he said. “Alu­minum melts at 1,500 de­grees and I saw whole car bodies that are com­plete pud­dles. That tells me the fire was well in ex­cess of that tem­per­a­ture.”

For now, Beck­stof­fer’s other prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing Tuck Beck­stof­fer Es­tate Win­ery at the foot of How­ell Moun­tain and Tuck Beck­stof­fer Wines in Oakville, are out of harm’s way. He’s wor­ried though, about winds con­tin­u­ing to change, which could send flames through Cal­is­toga and south along Napa Val­ley’s east­ern side. He’s also closely watch­ing the Nuns fire rag­ing through Mt. Veeder on the val­ley’s west side.

Even as his winer­ies re­main at risk, Beck­stof­fer has be­gun giv­ing back to his dev­as­tated com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing do­nat­ing this week­end’s tast­ing room pro­ceeds to re­lief ef­forts, and putting on a big bar­be­cue Thurs­day for fire­fight­ers.

“This val­ley has given us so much, my fam­ily and me in­di­vid­u­ally,” said Beck­stof­fer, who is the son of Andy Beck­stof­fer, one of Wine Coun­try’s big­gest vine­yard own­ers. “We have a long, long road ahead. This is such a small thing that we can do.”

Still, other vint­ners are com­ing to terms with the fires’ im­pact.

Early word from Men­do­cino County’s Red­wood Val­ley in­cluded re­ports that Golden Vine­yards had burned to the ground. But while that ground is still smol­der­ing, owner Julie Golden said, “our vine­yards are scorched but they are not ru­ined.”

She, her hus­band and two win­ery work­ers fought back flames alone on many sides of their 2,000-plus acre ranch prop­erty, which in­cludes their home. They do not have a win­ery on the vine­yard site it­self.

“We saved our house twice so far this year,” she said, re­fer­ring to July wild­fires that also burned in Red­wood Val­ley. “I’m just in shock ac­tu­ally.”

Other lo­cal vint­ners haven’t been as for­tu­nate. Neigh­bor­ing Frey Vine­yards burned down. The Men­do­cino Wine­grow­ers re­port that five vine­yards in nearby Pot­ter Val­ley suf­fered dam­age, although the ex­tent was not known yet known Thurs­day morn­ing.

Even amid so much un­cer­tainty, how­ever, vint­ners such as Beck­stof­fer knows one thing for cer­tain.

“We’ll keep go­ing,” he said. “We’ll help peo­ple get back up on their feet, that’s im­por­tant.


Wine bot­tles dam­aged in the Tubbs Fire at Cal­is­toga’s He­lena View John­son win­ery.


Fire de­stroyed the Par­adise Ridge Win­ery in Santa Rosa, as seen in pho­tos the win­ery shared on its Face­book page.


The Tubbs fire burns at the He­lena View John­ston win­ery and vine­yards in Cal­is­toga.

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