Igor Sill spent much of his life preparing to own a winery in the Napa Valley where he and his family might craft their own special wine.
In 2016, that dream became a reality when he and his wife, Cindy, purchased an existing 24-acre vineyard and winery property in Atlas Peak. One year later, the devastating wine country fires of 2017 swept through their land, leaving the winery in ashes. Luckily, the vineyard and main house remained intact. The harrowing experience has dented, but not destroyed, the Sills’ resolve to continue making wine.
“Our plan is to build a new winery and continue making wine from the vineyard, although we’ll need to do the wine making off-site for at least the next few years while we rebuild,” Sill said. “Fortunately we have another home in St. Helena, and we also had stored some of our wine off-site or we would have lost all our inventory. As it stands now, we lost 66 barrels of wine, which is nearly 40 percent of the vintage. But at least it wasn’t everything.”
In 1992, Atlas Peak became one of the sub-American Viticultural Areas in Napa Valley. Located on the western slopes of the Vaca range that separates the Napa and Sacramento valleys, this AVA reaches a peak elevation of 2,663 feet. The volcanic soils in this hilly region are thin and sparse, and the temperatures can be 10 degrees cooler than they are on the valley floor, a feature that was painfully apparent when I met with Sill.
The mid-February day was sunny but remained exceptionally cold when we sat and talked about wine and the fires from the deck of the only structure that had survived the blaze. Perhaps it remained because of its stucco exterior and Spanish-style small windows.
Beyond, heaps of charred stones lay in piles, the only visible evidence of what had been the winery. Farther along, the still-hibernating Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard slipped down a slope toward the Napa Valley floor some 1,650 feet below, the horizon eventually fading into the mist of the San Pablo Bay.
A biting wind brought with it the smell of charred wood and the sounds of pounding hammers and whirling drills as construction workers repaired a water tank that remained nonoperational and still without power some 20 weeks after the fires had swept through the area on the night of Oct. 8, 2017.
“We are so fortunate that our son made it out before it was too late and that my wife and I were eating dinner down in Napa when the fires hit,” Sill said. “It took us 10 days after the fire before they allowed us back to assess the damage. We didn’t know what we’d find.”
First visit after the fires
To visit the site, Sill explained that he needed to obtain a permit and then was escorted by Cal Fire crews to ensure safety. While they were heading up Atlas Peak Road, a TV crew from the local CBS station asked to tag along.
“I didn’t know what I’d find when we drove up,” Sill said. “I was relieved that the vineyard and main house were not burned to the ground (although a large oak had fallen on the main house and damaged the roof), but it was pretty tough to see that our winery and lots of other structures like the guest house and root cellar had just been incinerated. I think that if that crew had not been up there with me, I would have just sat down and cried.”
Right away, Sill and his family went to work submitting the paperwork for the insurance claim, trying to contact and secure contractors, working with architects to redesign the winery and buildings. But what they found, and continue to find, is that nothing seems to move as quickly as they might have hoped.
“Just getting water has been a real challenge, especially without power,” Sill said. “The insurance process has been something that I didn’t really expect to be so difficult, and crews are really tough to get and then keep because there’s just so much demand and need out there.”
Sill is finding that what he estimated might take a couple of years to rebuild may actually take as many as six.
“Right after the fires happened, I thought we might be operational by 2020. But given the complexity of rebuilding on a burn site, I now think we’ll probably have to push that back, maybe until 2024, which is discouraging but not a deal-breaker.”
It is easy to imagine feeling discouraged when faced with the daunting challenges of rebuilding a winery while at the same time launching a new wine brand into the marketplace. But Sill has spent the last decade or more training for this moment and he is not ready to give up at the first (or second or third) bump in the road.
“When my wife was diagnosed with late-stage multiple myeloma and given only two months to live back in 2005, we thought that there must be something we could do more than just wait,” Sill said. “We had a friend who knew a doctor that was doing some interesting research and so we went to see him.”
Sill retired from his job in technology finance and dedicated his time to taking care of Cindy while she underwent an innovative, but unproven treatment that included using the banned drug thalidomide.
“Igor was with me at every step of the path,” Cindy said. “He made sure I took everything, kept a detailed journal and kept me on a strict, prescribed diet. I was given only a couple months, but here I am. I’ve had to have 37 bone marrow biopsies, but we’ve been together through it all.”
After her first cancer — there would be another, but like the first this second cancer now seems at bay — they decided to work toward their dream of making wine a reality. As they’d done in the world of technology, they systematically worked toward the goal. Along the way Igor became a certified Court of Master Sommelier, taking winemaking and viticulture classes at UC Davis and working at both V. Sattui Winery and Opus One Winery, while Cindy healed, helped with label designs and ensured that the bookkeeping was kept in order.
Making wine with or without a winery
A decade later, they were making wine through a custom-crush agreement using sourced grapes from grapegrowers such as Andy Beckstoffer in Napa and the Sangiacomo Family in Sonoma. They purchased the Atlas Peak property, and as a part of that purchase they also procured some still-fermenting wine that their consulting winemaker, Derek Irwin, had helped to craft.
This wine, the 2015 vintage, recently won a double gold and “USA Wine of the Year” for 2018 at the China Wine and Spirits Award, Best Value Wine Competition. While it might not be a review from Robert Parker Jr., it was encouragement for the Sills in what must feel like a sea of recent discouragement.
“We were really thrilled to learn about the award,” Sill said. “It’s something that highlights what we are trying to do with our wines — a pursuit of excellence.”
The wines of Sill Family Vineyards
I tasted four wines, the 2014 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($185 a bottle), the 2015 Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon ($185 a bottle), the 2016 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($65 a bottle) and the 2016 Chardonnay Rose ($65 a bottle). All wines have the prefix “très,” the French word for “very,” which according to Cindy is part of their signature and highlights their approach toward life and wine.
The Rose is interesting in that it is made of their Chardonnay with a 2 percent add of Cabernet Sauvignon to make it rose-colored. The approach is novel and strange, but the flavors are compelling. They bring to mind a Chardonnay that’s had, well, Cabernet added, bringing with it a musty earthy element that seem to accentuate the lemon-citrus notes along with green apple.
The Chardonnay is sourced from grapes grown on a Sangiacomo Family vineyard in the Gap’s Crown region of Sonoma County. This region is fast becoming known for making exceptional California Chardonnay, and this one does not disappoint with complex flavors of ripe pear, Fuji apple, saffron, gingerbread, graham cracker, cardamon and a finish of wet granite.
The Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from Beckstoffer’s Georges de Latour vineyard in Rutherford. This is a typical Napa Cabernet that has black and blue fruits, soft tannins and oak spice and is one that any lover of valley-floor cabs will find both familiar and enjoyable.
The Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on the estate vineyard, 11 acres at an elevation of 1,650 feet that consists of clones 7 and 337. This is the wine that spoke to me of the journey this family has taken to get here. The aromas are of earthy loam, Chambord, light-roasted coffee and molasses. On the palate this wine has a wonderful dustiness throughout and the flavors are consistent with the nose. Although there is a slight loss of shape, texture and flavor in the mid-palate, I would hope that this fills out as this wine ages. There are few bottles of these wines made (only a few hundred), but most are available either through the website or local restaurants such as Solbar in Calistoga and Bottega in Yountville. The wine is not sold in retail shops.
A quest for meaning
“A long time ago, something told me that I could make a wine that has meaning, and that’s what we are trying to do,” Sill said as we walked from the main house to the burned-out winery.
In the rubble, they’d found a wine thief (a tool for removing samples of wine from a barrel) that had been heated by the fires to the point that it had melted into a twisted, collapsed cylinder of glass. He held the instrument carefully as if it were some historic relic from an archaeological dig.
“I’m really not sure what the future holds,” he said and paused, gazing around at the rubble and then back down at the bent and contorted glass. “But for now we are moving forward focused on devotion, love of this place and on making a wine that is even better next year than the one we made this year. That’s the plan. What else can you do?”