As spring comes to ground zero of the Tubbs fire, nearby winemakers count their blessings
For the winemakers near Tubbs Lane, the coming of spring is bittersweet.
While spring is more than a month away, the unseasonably warm weather seems to have left winter far behind. The sun beams down from azure skies, and white tree blossoms, green grass and yellow mustard flowers paint the landscape in bright swaths of color. The long run of warm weather has given way to early talk of bud break, the first green shoots on dormant grapevines.
Tubbs Lane is where the Tubbs fire got its name. But the deadly firestorm that started the night of Oct. 8 didn’t actually begin here. The wind-whipped inferno started a little farther up Highway 128, near Bennett Lane. But for those who live and work near Tubbs Lane, it was ground zero.
Underneath the growing thicket of green on the hillsides that rise steeply from the valley floor are the black scars of the fire and the charred foundations of homes lost in the disaster. While green seems poised to overtake the black as the landscape heals, it will take those who lived through the fire longer to recover.
“It was bloody terrifying,” says Rachel Gondouin, associate winemaker at Bennett Lane Winery, just around the corner from Tubbs Lane.
The tile-roofed winery survived the fire, but Gondouin says they had only harvested about 50 percent of their grapes when the disaster struck, and much of the crop was lost to smoke damage. But she’s looking to the future.
“It’s such a beautiful time of year right now, with all of the mustards growing—it gives us a sense of renewal into 2018,” she says. “We are excited for the promise the new vintage will bring.”
After riding over Mount St. Helena on his motorcycle from Lake County the morning of Oct. 8, Envy Winery winemaker Banton Kirkendall stayed on site to protect the winery and his fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon. Half the winery’s crop was picked before the fire. The remainder does have a whiff of smoke taint, but Kirkendall says creative blending should take care of that.
A former firefighter, Kirkendall appreciates the role fire plays in California. “The forest needs to burn to regenerate,” he says.
Kirkendall wonders if there will be two Napa Valley 2017 vintages, pre-fire and post-fire. “We will find out,” he says.
For now, Kirkendall’s watching the surrounding landscape change.
“All that green and black,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing.
Chateau Montelena is one of Tubbs Lane’s most celebrated wineries. Its 1973 Chardonnay beat out 11 other French and California white wines at the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976. The winery was founded by businessman Alfred Tubbs in 1888, the man for whom the road is named. The Tubbs fire didn’t damage the winery, but vineyard manager David Vella says 45 tons of grapes still on the vine were lost to smoke damage. The winery did not fare so well in 1964 when a wildfire destroyed the property’s stately mansion and farm building.
“This was history almost repeating itself,” Vella says.
Vella lives on the property and says if the winds had changed direction during the fire, the fate of the winery would have been very different. “It would have been ugly.”
Every morning, Vella looks to the north at the fire-scarred hills and realizes how lucky he was. “It’s a blessing,” he says. “We feel very fortunate.”
While the lack of rainfall has him worried, he takes some solace in the profusion of new growth t
“This is renewal to a certain extent,” he says. “It’s soothing to see all the green.”
Karan Schlegel knows her way around the city she’s called home for 36 years
Describe your perfect day in Calistoga?
Sitting in my backyard drinking my morning coffee, reading the paper or a book, and waving to the hot air balloons as they fly over town. After that, I walk downtown to the Saturday Market for fresh fruit and vegetables, stopping in at Bella Bakery for a pastry, coffee and a chat with locals. Then I check out what’s new in the stores on Lincoln Avenue. Mid-afternoon would then lead me to one of the spas for a mineral or mud bath, massage and a swim in the mineral pool. The perfect day would end sharing dinner with family or friends.
Where is your favorite place to eat in Calistoga and why?
I enjoy all the various cuisines offered in the local restaurants, but if I have to choose one that stands out it’s Solbar located at Solage. Whether I am sitting outside by the pool looking at the Palisades mountains, or inside on a cold day by the fireplace, the tranquil atmosphere makes me feel like I am on vacation.
Where do you take first-time visitors in Calistoga?
I take first-time visitors to the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. It was founded by Ben Sharpsteen, who was an Academy Award–winning animator, producer and director for Walt Disney Studios. The memorabilia of Ben’s career and an Oscar are on display in the founder’s room of the museum.
What do you know about Calistoga others don’t?
I have only lived in Calistoga 36 years and am aware there are locals in their 90s that know more about Calistoga’s history. However, I did ask my husband, Ron, who was born and raised in Calistoga. Ron’s family property was located two miles south of Calistoga below Sterling Vineyards on Highway 29. He remembered there was a trail across from their property that was built by Chinese laborers. The trail ran north toward Diamond Mountain and Kortum Canyon just above Calistoga. The land is now covered by vineyards, houses and roads.
If you could change one thing about Calistoga what would it be?
The housing shortage. Family members of Calistogans, including my children, find it challenging to continue living in our community due to the shortage of apartments and the rising cost of real estate. Unless children inherit or take over running a family business, they tend to leave Calistoga and move somewhere more affordable.