With the glow of the fires clearly visible, Michael Parmenter and his wife and partner, Kiky Lee, proprietors of Atlas Peak’s VinRoc Cellars, thought things would be fine. They’d leave their home and winery and drive to where they might get better cellular reception. They didn’t pack. They’d be back soon enough.
At least that’s what they thought. But as they drove, the fire swept behind them, blocking their return and forcing them to flee. Days later, they returned to find their home destroyed, with only their wine-cave winery remaining intact.
“We had bought the land in 1999 and then over the next decade we planted a vineyard, dug our cave and my wife designed our dream home,” Parmenter said. “We will rebuild, but it is taking longer than we expected. We’re just happy that we got out OK and we still have the winery and vineyard, although some of the vines got damaged.”
Lee, originally from China, had designed the new home and done the architectural drawings. She and her husband had worked together as general contractors for the work, and she had travelled to China to gather and ship finishing materials.
Building a dream
“It took three and a half years to build our home — it was finished at the end of 2011,” Lee said. “We were hands-on everything. We knew every corner, every stone, nail, roof and tile for the whole house, in fact, for the whole property.”
The couple built an oasis where they might live out their days making wine and tending their vines. Now they must almost completely start over again.
“I am relieved that the winery is still usable and the vines seem OK, but I wish we could just start building again,” Parmenter said. “I thought we could just rebuild quickly, but there are requirements to conduct such things as geotechnical studies before we can even just pour a foundation where our old barn stood, and that really slows things down. I mean, I’m just replacing what was there before — it’s pretty frustrating, but we’ll get through it.”
Living through a hellish experience
Just up the road from the VinRoc Cellars — and like nearly everyone in the Atlas Peak region — Dos Lagos Vineyards owners Marcie and Tom Dinkel had their own harrowing story.
“We escaped with a convoy of cars over the top of Atlas Peak,” Tom said. “In our group of escapees were four women who were in Napa to recover from the Florida hurricanes. I banged on their door, woke them up and rousted them into action.”
Their account of that night paints a hellish scene with a caravan of cars huddled close enough to see the headlights through the thick smoke, each twisting down a country road, each surrounded by fire and devastation.
In the end, six Atlas Peak residents had perished, hundreds of structures had burned to the ground, thousands of acres lay scorched and nine wineries had been damaged or destroyed.
Now, traveling back up the same road, the signs of the fire are everywhere — charred trees such as madrone, blackened earth and hundreds of vacant lots scraped down to the ground by Federal Emergency Management Agency debris-removal teams.
Yet at the same time there are signs of regrowth and a return to normalcy — green shoots and fields of spring Fremont’s death camas flowers are emerging after the recent rains, and vintners are eagerly awaiting the first signs of bud break.
But just as the residents of Atlas Peak have stories of loss and sadness, they also seem to have a wellspring of optimism and tales of support, encouragement and community.
“The most gratifying thing to arise from the ashes has been the vast outpouring of love and support from everyone,” Tom Dinkel said. “Our wine club members and mailing list folks have been eager to help in the best possible way — by buying our wine.”
Learning from the fires
“Everyone that is rebuilding and recovering has been doing so on their own individual learning curve without much sharing of knowledge among others in the same, nearly exact situation,” Dinkel said. “It probably makes some sense on some level to try and share the learnings.”
“We have learned much from the fires,” said Peter Read, owner of Circle R Ranch. “One important lesson is that we need to create better guidelines for forest management and help people understand how better to avoid the devastating impacts of the recent fires in the future. There is a lot of work to be done, but I am encouraged by the outpouring of support from the local community and beyond.”
None of the structures burned on the Circle R’s 1,600-acre property, including a beautiful old barn that stands at the edge of a verdant meadow. That meadow and other habitats on the ranch serve to function as natural animal corridors that link with adjacent protected spaces, such as the nearby 1,318-acre Mead Ranch and 1,380-acre Sutro Ranch preserve.
“We allow grazing on our land, which helped suppress the spread of fire,” Read said. “And there are other elements, too: cleaning away the brush from your home and removing any flammable material from under your decks, for example. That said, the recent fire was nearly unimaginable in terms of its ferocity.”
The Circle R easement was created in collaboration with the Land Trust of Napa County. As a part of the master plan for the site, 300 acres of vineyard are planned or already planted. The vines are there to “allow the property to sustain itself over time,” according to Read, with what will be primarily Cabernet Sauvignon grapes sold to local wineries. According to earlier reports, Read is adamant that there will never be ranchettes or other subdivision-like building on the site in perpetuity.
The wines of Atlas Peak
In 1992, Atlas Peak became one of the sub-Appellation Viticultural Areas within the 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 to 15 degrees cooler than they are on the valley floor.
The wines grown and made in his hilly region are different from those made from valley-floor fruit. Whereas the wines of the valley are often silky and heavy with dark-berry fruit, the wines of Atlas Peak are of a heartier stock, often displaying mouth-coating tannins, dried herbs and red-fruit characteristics such as raspberry and cherry. Many of the wines can take time to age before they reveal their true complexity and depth.
What I find most compelling about the best wines from the Atlas Peak region is that they can showcase the particular site where the grapes have grown unlike any other location in the Napa Valley, except perhaps those wines from the Pritchard Hill region.
Atlas Peak was one of the hardest hit areas in the 2017 fires. How they’ve come together as a community is often inspiring and speaks to many of the best elements of the broader Napa Valley community: cooperation, innovation and dogged determination to protect and strengthen what we all hold dear. I look to them to continue this tradition because they hold the highest of standards, commensurate with their wines.
After the fires, Parmenter and Lee stood at the location of where their front door had been and surveyed the devastation around them. Determined to rebuild, they looked first to their community, but also to ancient traditions to provide solace and direction.
“It was very uplifting to me that after the fire, although our new home, guest house and all three outbuildings had burned, Michael had reminded me of the old Tibetan mandala — the detachment celebration of sweeping away the Tibetan monks’ sand paintings, erasing months of work.
“It is a rebirthing, a blessing of reincarnation,” she said. “We are looking forward to moving upward and moving forward.”