Wine Ink: The vines still grow in Napa
There is nothing as life affirming as the relentless nature of a vine.
On a cool, crisp autumn morning, just one week before a single spark on a Sunday night blew into the biggest firestorm in California history, I reveled in a run through the vineyards in the Napa Valley. My days prior had been spent exploring vineyards, meeting with winemakers, picking grapes in the pre-dawn hours with a team of farm workers and availing myself of the bounty of the Napa’s great restaurants. Though I have been there too many times to mention, I left with the feeling that of all the wine regions on Earth, Napa Valley may be the most hospitable.
Then it happened.
The mind is staggered by the numbers. Each day, for 10 days now as of this writing, the death toll from the fires has risen, the number of homes and buildings destroyed climbed and the number of acres burned, multiplied. That is how we rate carnage these days. By the numbers.
But each number punctuates a personal story. The death of a loved one resonates throughout a family and a community. The loss of a home changes lives forever. And those acres are the lifeblood of the Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino economies. We tend to become numb to the numbers and the stories on the news as they go by, day after day. But to those who have been in the choking smoke for more than a week, just waiting for the fires to go away, this represents a new reality.
But like the vines, the people of wine country are both resilient and relentless. They will replant, rebuild and move forward. At a gathering of winery owners last week organized by the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) trade association, the chairman of NVV board and of Honig Vineyard and Winery president Michael Honig, spoke of that resiliency.
Honig told the assembled, as quoted in Wines and Vines Magazine: “The Napa Valley community has always been a strong community. Robert Mondavi used to say, ‘The better the Napa Valley brand does, the better we do individually.’ We’ve struggled through drought, pestilence, earthquake — even Prohibition. We suffered and we survived, so this is a hiccup in the context of a generational business.”
Indeed. Those in wine country have been through this before. In fact, one of the most inspirational wine stories in California wines was a product of a previous wildfire.
In 1981, John Shafer was just building his Shafer brand into what has since become one of Napa’s great wineries. That June, an arson-sparked fire on Atlas Peak burned 24,000 acres and 65 buildings. The Shafers fought the fire with fire, setting backfires on a knoll above their home, clearing the brush before the main fire could destroy their property.
Once the fire was out they saw the value of planting that space to wine grapes. Naturally, the vineyard was dubbed Firebreak. For many vintages, the Shafers produced a sangiovese/cabernet sauvignon blend from the vineyard modeled after the great Antinori blends, which they also called Firebreak. Big, strong, tannic, it was a favorite of many, including me, not just for the nature of the wine, but also for the resiliency of the story behind it.
Today, Shafer makes a wine, a syrah from the Vaca Mountains, called “Relentless.” It was christened such to honor the spirit of Shafer’s winemaker, Elias Fernandez. But if I may, the name is perhaps even more appropriate now as an homage to the firefighters who fought the flames, as well as a call to action to those in the affected wine communities who go must forward. Who must remain relentless.
Over the coming years, we will be following the stories of the wineries and the people of wine country as they rebuild and replant. While it is early in the process, there will be stories like the Shafers, people who were able to persevere and create something from tragedy. People, like vines, are powerful.
There are a number of ways to support those who have been affected by the fires. But perhaps the best way is the easiest way. Buy California wine. Right now, purchasing the wines from Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino will open space on the shelves and support the upcoming vintages. A rise in sales will not just buoy the market, it will show the vintners that their customers out there value their products and want them to keep making them.
Be relentless in your purchases.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.