Two of the four vintner families whose brands are produced at a Soda Canyon custom winery lost their homes as the deadly Atlas Peak wildfire raced toward Napa Valley in early October.
The crush facility itself survived being overrun by superheated flames. Though there are repairs to do outside the winery, the inside storage and production facilities survived and, soon, is in store for a doubling of winemaking capacity which was planned before the fires.
Henry and Olga Paltand of Patland Estate Vineyards found that the stone-walled main house at the estate on Soda Canyon Road was gutted by the October blaze. But their wines survived in the property’s cave cellar. Henry Patland wrote to customers a few days later, while crews were still battling what became a nearly 52,000-acre fire, that none of the bottle corks was pushed out, indicating excessive heat and damage to the wine.
Owners of Patland, Waugh Family Wines, Buoncristiani Family Winery and Lobo Wulff Wines partnered to start Caves at Soda Canyon. This year was the fifth harvest for the 18,000-square-foot custom-crush winery carved into a hillside on the 31-acre property at 2275 Soda Canyon Road. Production equipment, offices, tasting and hospitality areas for the four brands are all inside.
“The whole exterior was torched,” said Ryan Waugh, owner and winemaker for Waugh Family Wines. “But our view is still there.”
Cave construction created a bit of its own funnel for the flames, Waugh said. Experts from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) told him that fill trucked from of the cave excavation and placed below downslope created an earthen bowl that accentuated the fire’s ferocity. Together with the insets that lead to the cave portals create, the fire effectively had a 15-foot-wide chimney to channel and fan the flames, Waugh said.
CalFire estimated the fire temperature reached about 2,000 degrees for 45 seconds, incinerating 140 plastic grape-picker macrobins stacked in front of the cave and burning into the asphalt paving and concrete retaining wall around the portals. The fire was so hot it melted polyvinyl chloride (PVC) piping buried a couple of feet below the paving. But the heavy wooden doors at the mouth of the portals survived, protecting all that was inside.
Outside was the backup power generator, boiler, nitrogen generator for winemaking and water well. The well itself survived, but the pump housing didn’t. It wasn’t until early December that Oakville Pump could get the well operational, allowing the facility to switch from using a hose to supply water.
“I’ve been telling people to go over their insurance policy, and there are four or five things you should really look at,” Waugh said.
The business-interruption coverage he had was “a huge, huge deal,” he said. The winery had 65 tons of grapes that was supposed to arrive the day of the fire and over the following two weeks, representing a “big loss” in business, Waugh said.
Utility-service damage coverage helped cover the time when the business didn’t have power, he noted. When electricity went off as power poles burned down, the winery was left with a backup generator to run refrigeration and pumps, and then the generator burned.
Coverage for leakage helped for spilled wine from outdoor tanks, a common feature at North Coast wineries, Waugh said. Vintners also should consider coverage for staff time taken up with the cleanup effort, he said.
A welcome discovery for the owners from the winery’s insurance policy was $50,000 in coverage for outdoor property damage, Waugh said. He estimates tree removal alone will run about $30,000.
But a big factor in the Soda Canyon winery’s survival also has been an insurance challenge, Waugh said. There was a disagreement with the claim adjuster over classification of claims as “building” versus “property.” Rather than the structure element having a large value, as with an above-ground facility, Waugh argued for a small value, with the majority being property inside the cave. He said it was eventually resolved in his favor.
Caves at Soda Canyon is permitted to produce 30,000 gallons of wine annually, or about 12,600 standard 12-liter cases of wine. The Napa County Planning Commission approved an expansion plan that includes expanding production equipment into 9,300 square feet of the cave to allow for a doubling of permitted capacity and calls for an outside party yard and patio. An appeal of that approval filed by a neighbor is tentatively set to go before the county Board of Supervisors on Jan. 23.
The goal is to be done with insurance matters from the fire by that time, Waugh said. If the expansion gets the green light, the goal is to have phase 2 complete by harvest 2018.
Jeff Quackenbush (firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.