Ashes, Casks and Cash: Helping California means bringing a sense of normalcy back to their economy

By on November 1, 2017

“It came through faster than people could get out. Within six hours, entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa were burnt to the ground,” Mo, our wine tasting guide explained as he showed us to the fire line behind Clos du Val winery.

“We were incredibly lucky.”

While the scorch marks ended before hitting the grape vines, 27 wineries are in the area are now ashes. What that means is that thousands of livelihoods are gone.

Vines take years to mature properly, and the decades of labor and love that were put into developing the wineries have also been lost.

We entered Napa Valley just one week after devastating fires had torn through, engulfing vineyards, homes and entire blocks of one of California’s most treasured destinations. Upon arrival, we were greeted by “Thank You First Responder” signs and industry workers eager to have business go back to normal.

To our left, the tree-covered hills of Napa looked healthy, as though nothing had been amiss.

To our right, though, the entire hillside was black, with white lines of rock indicating where the houses had once stood, overlooking the valley.

Passing by rows of yellowing vines, dry cracked dirt, and brown fields, the drought in the region still seems, even after the recent fires, something ripe to become a wildfire paradise.

The issues started way back in 2012, when two years of severe drought — from 2012 to 2014 — caused the crops in Napa Valley to become parched and desperate for water.

In 2015, the water those crops were desperate for came and did not stop. The result was an abundance of growth in vegetation, as the starving plants feasted in fear of their next opportunity. The result? A valley of kindling.

And up it went just two years later, when severe windstorms picked up around midnight on October 8th.

Residents of Santa Rosa and Sanoma were just heading to bed when furious winds tore down power lines, causing sparks that lit up the dry grass and the night sky with ominous flames.

Within hours people’s livelihoods were up in smoke.

This is usually our busy season,” our Uber driver said. (Pro tip: When in Napa, do as the Napanians do and find yourself a DD.)

“But since the fire, people have been canceling their reservations. It’s devastating our workforce,” he said.

Our first stop on our recent post-fire Napa tour was the now-ironically named Ashes and Diamonds. The winery is a relative newcomer on the Napa winery scene, having only opened its doors in June of this year. The construction is still ongoing at Ashes and Diamonds, a gem (sorry) designed by modern architect Barbara Bester.

The hideway is amazing — we felt like we were approaching a new-world James Bond hide-out in the desert, or perhaps an ultra-hip disco pod.

Our wine maestro, Zach, described their wines as light, fresh, easy drinking. With alcohol percentages sitting between twelve and thirteen, he was right on the mark.

“We need people to start coming back,” he told us as he poured four glasses of their Rose, my personal favorite.

“I understand people feel we are reeling from this, and we are, don’t get me wrong, but we need business to start coming back.”

This sentiment was echoed throughout our two day visit to the valley. While the mood was overwhelmingly morose — how could it not be, given the devastation to the valley — there is a hopeful energy rebounding in vineyards and restaurants alike.

Like Jackson Hole, the service industry is their main source of economy, and those lucky enough to still have their jobs are eager to move forward.

Many of the vineyards that survived the ordeal are also donating earnings from the next month to organizations geared towards the regrowth and reparations of their fellow Napa citizens.  This includes efforts to save animals displaced by the fires.

The worst fire to hit the idyllic valley has certainly left a mark in not only the wine industry in Napa, but also the hearts of its citizens, and has forced many to find new homes and new lives.

“People are putting out ads advertising a willingness to pay a full years rent and an extra thousand dollars,” a local friend told me. “They’re told to get in line.”

In the wake of the devastation, the hope we took from Napa is to move forwards, encouraging tourists to come back as soon as possible, and bring some normalcy to their charred, but still resurrectable, world. PJH

About Helen Goelet

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