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Alexander Valley grape growers battled Kincade fire to save decades of Sonoma County family history

When Justin Miller first heard about a fire near The Geysers in northeast Sonoma County, he called all of his workers to his Garden Creek Winery and Vineyard fields to pluck the last of the cabernet sauvignon grapes from the vines.

Even if the Kincade fire didn’t reach the Alexander Valley to the southwest, he knew the smoke would settle there during overnight cooling. So they started picking, by hand, about 10 p.m.

By 2 a.m., when the fire came over the hill behind a neighbor’s ranch, Miller called off the operation after salvaging a third of the crop.

“I told the guys, ‘drop your sh-- and get out of here,’?” Miller said.

Some did. Others, along with Miller, picked up 5-gallon hand pumps to fight back the fire and save the winery.

About the same time, the fire screamed over the hill to the south, within sight of the Robert Young Estate Winery, on family land going back more than 160 years.

Robert Young initiated the farm’s transition to grapes from prunes in 1963, paving the way for the Alexander Valley’s ascent in the wine world to become one of the world’s most prestigious producers of cabernet sauvignon.

Today, Alexander Valley is home to nearly 15,000 acres of vineyards and 31 wineries, including Jordan, Silver Oak, Robert Young, Stonestreet and a multitude of small family wineries that have been in the valley since the 1970s, Miller said, coming a long way from pastures and prune trees.

Fred Young and his son, Robbie Young, both scions of Robert Young, were at the estate Wednesday night into Thursday morning as the fire consumed 1,000 acres per hour. They saw the fire, which would destroy 49 structures and grow to more than 23,000 acres by Friday evening, at its most fierce.

“I was sitting waiting, watching the fire come over the mountain,” Fred said. “It started moving really quick. Within about 30 minutes, it was on us.”

Flames lashed the sky ?100 feet high along a ridge on the northeast side of the property. A few acres of wine grapes provided a buffer between the fire and the family’s public tasting room and homes, but the 70 mph winds whipped sparks across those fields, leaving Fred and Robbie to stamp out fires on the property.

“I was definitely nervous,” Robbie said. “I’ve never seen it so windy. It moved super fast.”

The Young family lost an outbuilding, three tractors, four shipping containers, a garage and a field of grass hay for the family’s 50 head of cattle, which survived huddled near a pond.

Miller and his wife, Karin Miller, lost six structures, including worker housing, displacing some of the workers to housing the Millers own in Cloverdale for now. When the fire danger has passed, they’ll move into Miller’s dad’s old house near the family’s private tasting room.

That house was one of many structures saved by the 1940s-era pumps Miller bought a few months ago. They were $200 apiece, a price he initially thought was too high.

The pump reservoirs are made of steel, and designed to be strapped to a person’s back. They connect to a hose, itself connected to a brass fitting. Using two hands, you pull the fitting apart, then squeeze it together - meet your grandfather’s Super Soaker 500.

On Wednesday night in the Alexander Valley, the recently purchased pumps and the people operating them saved the day. Miller noted them by name: Benjamin Gonzalez, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Gonzalez and Jose Gonzalez Jr.

“If it hadn’t been for those backpack pumps, coupled with my crew, we most likely would have lost all of the structures in our winery area,” Miller said. “No way we would have been able to hold the fire back.”

Along with the structures, the fire destroyed two-thirds of the Garden Creek cabernet sauvignon crop.

Growers can conduct tests to determine smoke damage for a crop of grapes. That involves some science and beakers and lab coats.

But Miller instead grabbed a Ziploc bag from an outbuilding, shoved a few bunches of grapes in it and closed it up.

“When you get back home, open it up and smell it,” he said.

It smelled like smoke.

Insurance won’t cover smoke taint, just as it didn’t when the Millers lost up to 90% of their cabernet saugvignon two years ago during the fires that killed 24 people and destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.

Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, said 92% of the county’s wine grape crop has been picked. Neither that organization, nor Sonoma County Vintners had numbers specific to Alexander Valley, which tends to grow more cabernet saugvignon, which is picked later in the year.

Miller was running on a couple hours of sleep, and was banking on at least a full day of tree cutting around the property, including around a now-?destroyed spring water tank that caused him to get creative in fighting the fire. He had to hook up a generator to a well pump to fill the old-school Super Soakers.

Miller, it should be noted, has never fought a fire. And he’s scared about the upcoming three-day forecasts calling for extremely heavy winds.

“That’s why we’re trying to get every fuel source away from every structure,” Miller said, pointing to crew members with leaf blowers, shovels. “If you walk up in these hills, you’ll find root masses burning there. Walk all through this creek, poke it with a shovel - it’s still burning.”

He was in good spirits Friday, thankful for life and land.

“I feel absolutely f---ing fortunate to be able to live the life I live,” Miller said. “You gotta be humbled every once in a while, or we all naturally start taking stuff for granted.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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