Sonoma Gives: Spared major damage, owners of Glen Ellen's Beltane Ranch give back to firefighters

Without the heroics of firefighters and friends, Beltane Ranch would be ash, which is why owners of this Glen Ellen inn and winery transformed their annual November zinfandel release party into a community love fest. Their gesture of overwhelming gratitude raised more than $50,000 for firefighters and fire victims in Glen Ellen and Kenwood.

Still coping with their trauma and losses, they hosted a dinner dance and auction, held in a battery-candlelit horse barn, that was tearful, laughter laced and the ultimate example of neighborly love.

The 911 call from Beltane Ranch Inn and Winery is believed to be one of the first received when the wildfires began raging, and the family’s efforts to beat back the flames succeeded when the local fire departments arrived, saving the inn, Alexa Wood’s cottage and her daughter Lauren Benward Krause’s family home on the property, while a barn, other small structures and about 700 cases of Beltane Ranch wines were taken by flames.

Wood, Krause and her brother, Alex Benward, who lives near the ranch and has 14 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter, made sure their bed-and-breakfast guests were safely evacuated. They then fought the fire with garden hoses and shovels. Some cars belonging to guests burned, and Benward sent two couples off to safety in his 1972 vintage Ford Bronco.

The smoky inn had been closed for a month when it came time for the annual wine release party in November. Deciding to go forward with the dinner dance while still emotionally reeling from the fires, they were in no mood to party.

“It leaves you in a state of shock. You’re sort of different afterwards, like you’ve experienced another world,” Wood said.

So they decided to make the event a way to say thanks, adding a fundraising auction to benefit local fire departments and victims of the fires, with each of the team owners designing their own auction lot.

More than three months have passed since the fires and the inn is again open, yet when Krause thinks of the support her family received, tears still come and her voice almost fails her.

“Each of us came up with something that was true to us and true to the ranch. We wanted it to be authentic,” Krause said.

Wood is known as an expert in the kitchen, always using fresh ingredients from the property’s extensive gardens, so she offered a five-course dinner for 12, paired with Beltane Ranch estate wines, to be served in the inn or on the lawn overlooking the Valley of the Moon, often a sought-after wedding venue.

“It’s a miracle we are still here,” she said. “I really felt the need to do something.”

Krause went with a more casual Beltane experience for a larger crowd of 25 guests, offering her homemade guacamole and ceviche, estate wines and adding a taco truck for a dinner served on either the lawn or in the vineyards.

When Benward designed his lot he included his old Bronco, offering a ride in it to the Fremont Diner for brunch, followed by a barrel tasting at Beltane, a tour of private ranches in the Valley and a sunset picnic in the vineyard.

To further show their gratitude and create a thankful scene, they invited the Glen Ellen and Kenwood firefighters who saved Beltane Ranch and surrounding properties as their guests.

“It felt like an opportunity to move forward,” Krause said.

They asked John Serres, a Glen Ellen ranch and vineyard owner and longtime friend, who also helped save their property by bringing a water truck the night of fire, to be the auctioneer. They didn’t have a dollar goal in mind when they chose their lots and additional cases of wine as donations, but when the total came in at close to $50,000, it was more than they ever imagined.

Wood’s lot sold three times for a total of $18,000; Krause’s twice at $7,000 each time; and Benward’s sold four times for a total of $14,000. The auctioned 20 cases of 2016 Heins Block estate zinfandel bumped the total higher.

Neighbors and firefighters who knew one another joined with Beltane Ranch wine club members, some who are vacation home owners not usually plugged into the local scene. Together they repeatedly raised their auction paddles as Serres, with his gruff voice and cowboy hat, urged them on.

“People were gasping for air they were laughing so hard,” Wood said.

People won auctioned cases of wine and then gave them to firefighters. Emotions were running high. “I was very touched to see people who own big, fancy vacation homes having dinner with farmers and ranchers from the Valley. They were making friends with people they would not otherwise know,” Benward said.

Fifty percent of the funds raised that night will go to the Glen Ellen, Kenwood and Mayacamas fire departments, and 50 percent is going directly to those who lost homes or tools of their trade in Glen Ellen and Kenwood, people Krause said they like to think of as friends of the ranch.

“We wanted to do anything we could to say thank you. There aren’t words to describe how grateful we feel,” she said.

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