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Larson family upbeat after fire that destroyed winery tasting room

(This is part one of a two-part story. Part two will focus on the Sonoma Rodeo.)

The Larsons held their first family meeting on Wednesday night following a March 2 fire that destroyed their winery’s tasting room, and the prevailing mood was decidedly upbeat.

“I am so proud of my family and all those around me who are keeping such a positive attitude,” said Becky Larson, who had been overseeing the tasting room and continues to manage the wine club at Larson Family Winery in Sonoma. “Our daughter, Erica, general manager of the winery, came up with a motto we can all use during this time: ‘Resilience, Rebuild and Return.’”

She says that the fire has impacted everyone associated with the winery, but he’s been inspired by their resilience.

“There have been tears, laughter and already a lot of hard work by many people,” she said. “However, throughout this difficult time, our fantastic family and staff have rallied and shown strength and grace. We know it will get easier with time and are very optimistic about the future.”

She said that the family hopes to have a fully open, temporary wine-tasting room open by June 1.

“We may have a soft opening sooner, depending on how the demolition and cleanup goes,” she said. “Currently, we have barrel-room pickups for our wine club members and folks who order wine on the phone or online but want to pick up instead of ship.”

Becky’s husband, Tom Larson, the property’s winemaker, CEO and head of vineyard operations, says that creating a more permanent tasting room will take some time.

“We know it is a process, and right now there are a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We hope that we can be as expeditious as possible and have the support of the agencies we need to work with. We are not sure how the tasting room will look, but all the support of our community gives us great hope and inspiration.”

Becky has been moved by the extent of support the family has received after the blaze, which the fire inspector believes was caused by and electrical issue, although the investigation is ongoing.

“As a winery, we’re lucky to be a part of multiple membership groups that have reached out and offered support,” she said. “In addition to the support of our winery peers, many tourism and winemaking organizations, city organizations, district representatives, past employees, and friends and family near and far have reached out. We are so lucky to live in a community like Sonoma. We definitely feel the love.”

Patricia Cullinan, president of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, has offered the family free access to the organization’s archives as it rebuilds the tasting room.

“The Larsons have been supporters of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society,” Cullinan said. “Their winery is in an area of Sonoma [Schellville] that is different from the town, as it is out in an area that borders the marshlands of Sonoma Valley. The winery and tasting room reflect the agricultural history and feel of Sonoma, which I respect.”

The land on which the tasting room was housed has a long, colorful history. A steamboat captain named Stoffen built a Civil War-era farmhouse, now a vacation rental known as A Captain’s House, on the property. Tom’s great-grandfather, Michael Millerick, bought the farmhouse and 120 acres of land in 1899, mainly to raise dairy cattle.

“The property has had a lot of lives — a dairy, racehorse and livestock supply business and cattle ranch,” Tom said.

Tom’s uncle, Jack Millerick, founded the Sonoma Rodeo on the property in 1929 and it ran until 1951, making it the longest-running rodeo in Northern California at the time. Unique rodeo memorabilia filled the tasting room, along with handmade bars, homemade display cases, wine awards, photos of the family’s dogs, private labeled foods, a deli case and winery merchandise.

Some of the main historical items lost in the fire are the original rodeo gate and two framed, Levi’s satin rodeo shirts worn by Millerick. Also lost were photos, rodeo brochures, letters — some nearly 100 years old, written by cowboys who wanted to work at the ranch — and a 20-foot mural the Larson family commissioned from artist Ron Knutson depicting the history of the property from 1865 to the present.

“The mural, rodeo gate and rodeo shirts are all irreplaceable, as are many photos of family members,” Tom said.

The tasting room also featured a Christmas card sent to the ranch from the Howard family, with a photo of Seabiscuit, who was trained at Millerick Ranch, and ponies he sired, his “Little Biscuits.” The room also contained a commemorative, porcelain plate depicting racehorse Native Diver, who was trained by Tom’s cousin, Buster Millerick, and was the first horse to win $1 million, as well as countless photos of cowboys such as Tom Mix who worked in western shows and films.

Becky says that the tasting room was the home base for the winery’s business.

“It grew organically over the years, with the original structure being a pole barn used in the livestock business,” she said. “It’s where guests got to meet our wines and learn our history, and many guests became wine club members so they could enjoy Larson at home. Many wine club members and local guests frequented the tasting room so much that they felt like regulars.

“We were also kid- and dog-friendly, so many guests brought the entire family — two- and four-legged alike. At our annual events, we saw families come year after year for our Mother’s Day brunch and our Santa weekends. We got to see their kids grow up with each visit. During the past week, guests have been sharing photos of these memories on social media, tagging us with stories. It’s been bittersweet seeing photos of people having a wonderful time with their families, friends and dogs in our winery.”

The winery’s Christmas dinners, which lured more than 50 family and friends, were held mainly in the tasting room and featured a sit-down prime rib dinner.

“Our mission statement for the last 20 years has been ‘to make great memories,’ and the tasting room and vast picnic area have truly been a place to celebrate for so many,” Becky said. “We have amazing stories of staff who have met their spouses while pouring them wine. We also have had multiple proposals, birthdays, bridal and baby showers, and a couple who even named their son Larson after getting engaged on site and honeymooning here!”

This year, amid the challenges, the Larson family is celebrating the winery’s 35th harvest, which now includes the farming of more than 100 acres of estate grapes. Tom and Becky — along their children, Erica, Will and Wyatt — are doing well, but three other family members— Ollie, Rosko and Louie—are a bit out of sorts.

“These dogs continue to give us all a lot of love, but they’re very curious about where all the nice people who gave them treats are,” Becky said. “We’re hoping they can help us sell their namesake, Three Lab Cab, online!”

Contact Dan Johnson at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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