By Brian Patrick Higgins
NAPA -- As fine white ash covered cars in Oakland 40 miles to the south and a steady convoy of evacuees from wildfires in Sonoma County and Calistoga streamed past the outskirts of town on Highway 29, Napa last week had the feel of a town on the verge of something apocalyptic – again.
“There’s a lot of anxiety amongst the people in the valley,” said Judy Matulich-Weitz, the production manager for Laird Family Estates, a facility which custom-crushes grapes for some 80 winemakers. “I could see the same look in people’s eyes after the earthquake. Lots of people just really seem lost.”
The August 2014 earthquake that toppled several downtown buildings and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage is still recent history to the residents of Napa, where the tasting rooms and winery tours that serve the area’s $1.9 billion annual tourism industry have been closed this week as the mushrooming Nuns Fire to the west and the Atlas Fire in the hills to the east of Napa left the low-lying city’s residents wheezing and wide-eyed in a topographic gutter of smoke
“If you think about it right now, we’re surrounded by fire,” said Robert Vargas, foreman of the cellar crew at Andretti Winery. “Mount Veeder is on fire, Calistoga’s on fire, Atlas Peak is on fire, Fairfield’s on fire – I mean, it just goes on and on. There’s nowhere really to go from here.”
Vargas’ crew was enjoying a lull late in harvest season when the surrounding inferno altered their plans.
“A pinot, a syrah, petite syrahs, malbecs, all those varietals have pretty much all come in already,” Vargas noted. “The only thing that we’re waiting on are the cabs, which you see all these vineyards still have them hanging. They’re waiting for the sugars to get better. But now that all this smokiness is all in the air, they’re probably going to be picked sooner than later.
It will be a few years before the fate of the 2017 cabernet sauvignons from the world-famous Napa and Sonoma valleys is widely known, but the choice now facing winemakers – harvesting grapes that aren’t fully mature or risk atmospheric contamination of the thick-skinned fruit – isn’t one that Vargas envies.
“A syrah, you want to have a little smokiness to it,” he said. “A pinot, you want to have some smokiness to it. Cabs, not so much. You want to have a little. If you can smell it in the air, that’s what you’re going to smell in the fruit. So you definitely don’t want to have to deal with that, especially the winemakers. But they do get paid the bucks to make it better. Some of them can’t figure it out and use some additives and things like that.”
Five miles away, in downtown Napa, the promenade along the south side of the Napa River made for a ghostly stroll this week.
“Napa’s River Walk was a little bit unsettling due to the fact that most of the shops had signs, homemade signs on the front door, saying they were closed either due to the fire or the smoke or to the lack of employees that were able to come and work,” said Ross Jackson, 62, of Amherst, N.Y., who accompanied his wife to her business conference in Napa in the hope of touring some wineries. “So it’s just an incredible, incredible scene.”
Jackson was particularly shaken by one of his encounters.
“I was having lunch at this Mexican restaurant down the street and this elderly couple came in carrying a box with holes in it,” he said. “Inside the box was their cat, and I overheard a conversation that they had saying they were told to evacuate and they did not have time to pack a suitcase or anything – just put the cat in the box and leave. They were obviously retired, and if they lose their home, I don’t see how they would have been able to start over again. It just broke my heart to see that.”
With his winery plans canceled, Jackson’s Plan B was a beer at Downtown Joe’s Brewery and Restaurant, where business, in a scene reminiscent of three years earlier, has been booming.
“Unfortunately, when there’s a disaster, said they all seem to come to Downton Joe’s to gather and find out what’s going on,” said general manager Kathy Welsh, whose establishment was one of the few Napa businesses with power early in the week. “During the August 2014 earthquake, that was one of our busiest days ever, in the history of the restaurant. We actually had people coming in that whole entire week, because they were without power or people couldn’t use their cell phones and had nowhere to stay. But we were like the main hub for everybody coming in to use the Wi-Fi and get something to eat, because no one else was open. Local businesses were all shut down. So we’ve seen a lot of this before.”
Having lunch a few seats down from Jackson were Chris Ritz, 50, and Michael Emery, 27, who found themselves on unexpected leave from their employer, Cal Mart Grocery and Deli in evacuation-mandated Calistoga, five towns and 27 miles northwest of downtown Napa on Highway 29.
“Not being able to call your boss and tell him you’re not coming in and not showing up is kind of an odd situation,” said Ritz, referring to the lack of cell service in Napa early in the week and a litany of roadblocks in Calistoga before the town was evacuated on Wednesday.
“As stressful as it is in times like this, though, it also lets you see how people are willing to get together in community and everyone helping together,” Emery said. “In an earthquake, maybe things will get turned around everything, you know, but with fires, you can’t just go back. Everything’s destroyed.”
One notable difference between the post-earthquake boom at Downtown Joe’s and the current crisis has been the utter lack of patronage on the restaurant’s popular outside deck, virtually abandoned this week as the acrid air from the coalescing wildfires has proliferated at least as far as San Jose, 80 miles south of Napa, and caused widespread sellouts of disposable face masks throughout the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area.
A half-mile down Big Ranch Road from Vargas and his crew at Andretti Winery, a seemingly out-of-place police SUV bearing the emblem of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department – the county directly south of San Francisco – barricaded access to Oak Knoll Road and the tourist-centric Silverado Trail on the other side of the Napa River.
Sgt. Joe Sheridan of the San Mateo County Sherriff’s Department and Sgt. Steve Fine of the San Mateo (city) Police Department are part of a mass deployment of Bay Area law enforcement to Napa and Sonoma counties.
“It’s not unusual for agencies to help each other out,” said Fine as he and Sheridan waited for overnight relief before ending a 12-hour traffic-control shift near the city of Napa’s border with Yountville on Wednesday. “An event like this is overwhelming to the Napa County Sherriff, with 130 or so on their staff.”
Less than a mile away on Highway 29, Matulich-Weitz, the Laird Family winemaker, was working well past dark to reschedule fermenting and crushing sessions with dozens of winery clients.
“The power went off and we had no cooling and when you’re fermenting wines what you want to do is have cooling on your tanks because the yeasts start heating up the tanks,” said Matulich-Weitz, who rented a truck-sized generator to fill the gap until normal power was restored just before daybreak on Wednesday.
“The harvest has been the most beautiful harvest up until (Monday),” she said. “It started early. We had a rush at one point because of the heat, but it was turning over very nicely. This week was supposed to be a really mellow week. But it’s kind of turned into other things.”
Despite the presence of media from around the country and untold thousands of social media posts from residents, information has been slow to escape the relative isolation of Napa Valley’s wine industry, whose operations and public venues are strung along a web of unlit rural highways guarded, for most of the week, by law enforcement personnel. Cell phones – not to mention cell-based fire and road-closure updates from the Napa Sheriff’s Department – proved wholly unreliable in the chaos of the early part of the week.
“There’s a reason you keep your land line at your home,” Matulich-Weitz said. “I’ve been able to call everybody from my home because I have a land line – a regular land line, not a voice-over-internet land line. What’s happened is people have not been able to communicate. There’s tons of misinformation. We know some wineries have been burned down. Some of the wineries have had some damage. You know, there’s lots of stories going around.”
By Saturday, with the Atlas Fire 45 percent contained (by Monday, there would be 70 percent containment) Matulich-Weitz was breathing a cautious sigh of relief.
“We still have our power and employees are starting to come back,” she noted. “We’re doing real well, actually. We’re hearing positive stories. We just heard from one of our clients who get their fruit from Atlas Peak, and they made it through – which is great, especially since it was called the Atlas Fire.”
At the mercy of the elements for the bulk of the week, Napa may be due for a meteorological break in the early part of the coming week.
“In my 35 years of making wine, I have never experienced a fire like this," said Matulich-Weitz. "Everyone’s praying for rain right now – very highly praying for rain right. It’s supposed to come on Tuesday. But it can’t come fast enough. Any fruit that’s still out there, it’ll only help it, it’ll wash it off. And cabernet never gets hurt by rain at this time of year.”
Back at Andretti Winery, Vargas’ workers were comparing snapshots of the blood-red sun that has bathed their working hours in an eerie glow this week. Their boss turned to the east, where the vineyard’s back border is framed by a hill dotted with palatial estates overlooking the Napa River, and let out a melancholy sigh.
“We used to admire all the homes that were up on the hillside, just, you know, wondering ‘Am I ever going to be able to get something like that?’ ” Vargas said. “And now that you look you see one standing and the one next to it is gone. It’s just kind of blotchy now and you really can’t tell which structures are standing and which ones aren’t. Except for the one on the left – you just see the smoldering pile. It’s kind of sad.”