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Wineries: Rumors of ruin, tales of salvation

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Wineries are foremost among Sonoma County’s industries, so it’s no surprise that the fires still destroying acreage in both Sonoma and Napa have impacted the wine industry.

But initial reports that several major wineries had been lost proved premature, if not exaggerated. Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis and Landmark were all initially reported on social media to have been lost, but suffered at most damage only to secondary structures.

While Paradise Ridge Winery was heavily damaged at its flagship Santa Rosa hillside winery in the initial firestorm that ravaged nearby Fountain Grove, but its Kenwood tasting room location was relatively unaffected.

In fact, of the almost 100,000 acres charred since Sunday night, surprising little vineyard acreage was lost.

“Vineyards have a tendency not to burn, and that’s for two reasons,” said Auteur winemaker Kenneth Juhasz, president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance. “One, most of the vineyards are mowed, so grass levels are super-low. Also, they’re live plants. Irrigation helps as well, so they’re live, wet plants.”

“You can see it, looking up in the hills – vineyards have been acting as defensives,” said Juhasz. “They’ve literally protected buildings in some places, they’ve protected the fire from moving in some places.”

This land-saving attribute of vineyards has been borne out by this past week’s fires. On Monday morning, fires surrounded Gundlach Bundschu on Denmark Street, a venerable 150-year old Sonoma Winery. Jim and Nancy Bundschu, the 74- and 72-year-old parents of Jeff Bundschu, were hustled out of their 100-year-old home in the early morning hours as tornadoes of sparks raced over the property, and escaped with a few keepsakes and their memories. Two barns on the property were also destroyed.

Nearby, Scribe Winery was also surrounded by fires and Arrowhead Mountain burned, but firefighters succeeded in saving the “hacienda,” structures and vines, according to the company’s website. “Scribe is currently without power and water and will remain closed until further notice,” the message reads, adding that the 2017 harvest had all been completed two days before the fire.

Nicholson Ranch, a hilltop winery just inside Sonoma County on Napa Road, likewise endured fire damage but, again, the winery facilities and tasting room remained intact, according to their Facebook post. “The winery was in the path of the fire but escaped being engulfed by the flames. We have some damage to fix ... Some news sources prematurely reported our demise!”

On Saturday, Buena Vista Winery – one of the oldest wineries in the state – was surrounded by fire and firefighters labored to save the historic buildings and grounds. “The fire swept to the edge of Buena Vista, right up to the buildings, and the remarkable fire crews protected the winery and the first stone buildings of the California wine world,” said Megan Long, communications manager of the Boisset Collection.

Owner Jean-Charles Boisset said, with his characteristic enthusiasm, “Thank you everyone for your support worldwide and your passion for life!”

Long said they were still assessing damage and hope to reopen to visitors in one to two weeks.

Beltane Ranch, Hamel Family Wines, Kenwood Vineyards, Korbin Kameron, and Landmark Vineyards also reported structural damage, though the status of many of the Valley’s wineries and vineyards remains unclear.

“No matter the circumstances,” said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, “our winemakers … will do everything possible to ensure the highest quality winemaking for the rest of the 2017 vintage.”

Sam Coturri, who works with his father Phil Coturri and others in Enterprise Vineyards, spent much of the past few days ranging the back roads of the county’s mountain estates and posting what he found on Facebook. Though he admittedly focused on Enterprise-managed vineyards, from Thursday, Oct. 12, on, his eyewitness views providing an increasing number of followers on Facebook with an ongoing chronicle of the fire’s drama – and at least one lost dog, found.

“We are not out of the woods. We are in the woods and the woods are burning,” read one of his signature posts, on Friday, Oct. 13.

Early the next morning, he was reporting, “The scope of the Nuns Fire is massive. It is actively burning on the northeastern edge of the town of Sonoma on the valley floor while actively burning just above the Napa Valley floor in Oakville.”

But later that day, he delivered a “good news update – the Miracles of Moon Mountain continue… The vineyards of Kamen, Birch, 16600 and Moon Mountain Vineyards still stand. Miracles for sure, embodied by the hard work of so many.”

Only an hour or so later, Coturri reported, “Major aerial assault under way above Gundlach Bundschu. Six helicopters overhead. Make no mistake this fight is a long way from over but we’re getting everything they got right now.”

So it continued through a harrowing weekend of fires on the eastern fringes of Sonoma – “I could not fathom what it was like down there – surrounded by fire, swirling winds and soaring eucalyptus. How do we thank those folks for going in there and saving our town?”

By Monday, he had some time for reflection.

“To say we’re returning to business as usual is far from the truth because there is nothing normal about our life right now… Vineyard assessments and salvaging the harvest can wait, but that comes next,” he wrote. “We live off the land here. Even if your job is selling wine in a tasting room. Saving our lives includ(es) protecting our livelihoods.”

When this is all over, and the numbers are tallied and the costs calculated and the insurance claims filed, it will be a hundred accounts of ordinary people dealing with disaster that tells the real tale, the people’s history of Sonoma’s October fires.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.