Minnesotans share tales from California wine country fires: ‘Everybody’s rattled’
John Skupny hasnt had a chance to see the new Ryan Gosling-Harrison Ford movie Blade Runner 2049 yet.
Hes been living it.
In a continuing crisis, the Napa winemaker and other former Minnesotans living in Northern Californias wine country are in their second week of a dystopian nightmare wrought by raging, far-ranging wildfires.
Dozens dead. Thousands of homes (among them, that of the late Minnesota native/Peanuts creator Charles Schulz) swallowed up in flames. Billions of dollars in damage, including world-class wines that never will reach anyones lips.
The wine, of course, is the least important aspect, except when it comes to people losing their livelihoods.
It feels like Blade Runner. The whole familys mad at me that I stayed, said Skupny, who sent the rest of his clan north to Mendocino County, and also it seems there are only men left in [tourist enclave] St. Helena.
Russell Bevan of Napas Bevan Cellars knows the feeling. Weve been evacuated, allowed back, evacuated again. [Partner] Victoria [DeCrescenzo] went to my familys home, where theyve been evacuated.
So does Twin Cities native Tom Thornton of the Grade Cellars: Like a Steinbeck novel, weve been living out of our car like nomadic gypsies, looking for motels that take dogs and are smoke-free, meaning wildfire smoke. We finally ventured over to the coast and rented a house, waiting for the coast to be clear for returning to Calistoga.
Perhaps cruelest of all: This is not over, as a ceaseless cycle of Were OK, uh-oh, were not OK continues, with occasional respite and no end in sight.
The biggest problem has been keeping track. It changes so fast, said Dave Ready Jr., an Edina native now making wines at Sonomas Murphy-Goode. Youll have blue sky and then will be socked in with smoke.
Theres fires everywhere. Theyre all close, but theyre also everywhere. When people talk about where the fires are, its not like You take Vernon Avenue to Blake Road and take a right. Your texts go off every minute and a half with the next update or someone asking, So how are they doing on the fires? And nobody knows.
Blowing your way
It started on Oct. 8, a leisurely evening in the town of Napa for longtime Minneapolitan Adam McClary.
I went outside, and it was like a little campfire smell. And then the winds really started picking up and then a lot more smell, and then Im walking down my driveway and theres ash in the air. And the creepy thing about that is that when theres ash, that means its blowing your way.
He and Gabrielle Shaffer, his partner in life and at Gamling McDuck winery, tried to assess what to do.
I said first things first, sleep in your clothes and not pajamas, McClary said. At 4 a.m. we got a tweet, and five minutes later the sheriff was at the door, telling us to evacuate.
The most dangerous fire at that stage had started up the hill at an area called Atlas Peak, where Shaffer works as manager of viticulture and winery relations at the renowned Stagecoach Vineyard. They stayed with a friend and brought along a menagerie of pets: three chickens, five cats, one gigantic vineyard dog, two chinchillas and two goldfish, McClary recounted. Unfortunately, we lost one of our goldfish, Billy Ocean.
The good news: All the fruit for Gamling McDuck had been picked and was in tanks up in Calistoga. Later that week, that northern Napa town was evacuated, so McClary sneaked around police barricades to do punchdowns (pushing skin and pulps back into the juice).
The bad news: Only about 40 percent of Stagecoachs coveted grapes, which sell for upward of $8,000 a ton, had been picked, and access was available only by air. Through a family connection, vineyard manager Esteban Llamas was able to take a helicopter to the vineyard and give Shaffer an update.
Some perimeter blocks have burned, but the vineyard is mostly intact, she said. But with the hot winds and no irrigation, the leaves and some of the fruit are desiccated.
The lesson we should all take for this is to pick early, Shaffer said with as much of a chuckle as she could muster, acknowledging that gallows humor had been a helpful defense mechanism. I have been slumber-partying at one of my girlfriends. There have been a lot of tears, but a lot of laughs, too.
McClary made light of the shortage of protective masks in the area, and of social media.
The best thing about this is that I have an excuse to wear a bandanna, he said. And the Facebook feeds are just goofy as hell: Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. Oh, heres a puppy playing. Tragedy, tragedy, ah, a golf photo.
The truth is, were busting our [butts], waiting on things, trying to help friends. Everybodys rattled. Its pretty wild, and the only thing to do at the end of the day is drink wine.
Some work got done
The flames, fueled by high winds and dry conditions on the ground, destroyed many wineries and vineyards and blocked access to others.
The fires arrived at a particularly bad time for cabernet sauvignon growers and producers. Most pinot noir and white grapes had been picked, but not cab or zinfandel in many cases. Not good for someone like Ready who makes mostly red wines and sources grapes from an array of locales.
We have vineyards we cant get to, and if you do, you cant get grapes out anyway, he said. We have one ranch that we thought was OK. They thought they had it saved and then they didnt.
So we havent figured out the exact damage to the vineyards.
About 75 percent of Bevans fruit is in. Aiming to prevent damage to still-hanging grapes, he asked those growers to take 200 gallons [of water] per acre to blast the clusters and take off soot and ash.
But no one is asking workers to put themselves in harms way. Theres no reason for anyone to die over some fruit, Skupny said.
Up in smoke
One of many unknowns is whether and how smoke taint might affect the vintage. In 2008, Mendocino County vineyards were sporadically covered in smoke for weeks on end during the summer, and the pinot noirs in particular were redolent with smoke.
Bevan, a self-taught vintner who wrote about wine in these pages a couple of decades ago, said he believes the late-season fires wont have the same effect.
Smoke taint is usually more of a problem when it happens early in the season, before veraison, when grapes turn from tiny green berries to plumper red fruit, he said. Now the thicker skins should ward it off. Its like going to get a tan before you go to Mexico; it makes your skin tougher.
Power outages have complicated matters, preventing many wineries from controlling fermentation temperatures and in general vinifying in the manner to which they are accustomed. Were making wine the way they did 400 years ago, Bevan noted.
All of which means that it will be tough to assess what the 2017 vintage will be like. But for these Minnesota transplants, thats well down their list of concerns.
Its the uncertainty and the smoke, Ready said, and Ive got so many friends whove lost houses through this, I cant even keep track. And how many people will stay here, and how long is it going to take to rebuild this thing?
Plus there are more practical, personal concerns.
I just want to breathe some fresh air. I kind of took that for granted, Ready said, getting in the words between a couple of robust coughs.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.