Winery owners return with heartache and determination
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.