After enduring the shock of substantial damage and loss in the Glass Fire, Upvalley wineries are starting to rebuild amid numerous challenges. Not all of them are as tangible as replacing buildings.
Fairwinds Estate and Hourglass Wineries on Silverado Trail in Calistoga are both in the process of drawing up plans to replace structures lost on their property.
But another challenge is to balance looking toward the future with healing from the past, and keeping the Napa Valley name and spirit alive.
“There has always been a dialectic thread to our approach. Preserving the ‘old-school,’ while embracing modernism. Trouble is you can’t easily replace 160 years of history, patina and forest growth,” said Jeff Smith, owner of Hourglass Winery.
Last fall, the wildfire burned particularly hot through Bitter and Dutch Henry canyons, and came over the top of the winery. Smith described seeing the roof on fire, and melting roofing material.
“Imagine a polycarbonate napalm waterfall cascading on the fermenters and equipment below. The old farmhouse was built in 1858, and all the surrounding gardens and trees burned, as did a few acres of vineyard,” he said.
Smith and his wife, Carolyn, have lived in the valley since the 1960s. It was a family-owned business and their way of life.
“The property had an ‘old soul,’ which was the magic that set off a very modern winery,” Smith said. “That ‘old-schoolness’ was a reflection of the Napa Valley I grew up in and something that is very personal. That Napa is now mostly memory. Our challenge is to find a way to honor that spirit, even if we can’t recreate it.”
Blending past and future
Fairwinds Estate Winery has a history going back to 1969, when it was Cuvaison, one of the original wineries in the valley. The structures on the property were built in the 1970s, and though the wine cave was spared, the fire pretty much leveled the property.
“Right now we’ve got so much on our plate we didn’t expect to be dealing with,” said Brandon Chaney, co-owner of the winery.
Casualties of the fire included acres of trees on the 15-acre property which had to be removed. The fire was so hot that the heat damaged the roots of the trees, rendering them a hazard for future fires, Chaney said. The result is a wide swath of scarred land behind where the winery stood.
Lost were a couple of historic oak trees, including one that stood in front of the property that was about 150 years old. Chaney said they worked with PG&E to save some of the wood to be used in the rebuilding.
“That’s the least we could do for that tree that’s been there that long, to bring some of the history of the property back into the rebuilding,” he said.
Chaney also sees an opportunity to incorporate the past with the future into the winery itself.
“Architecturally, we want to do something that becomes a special place in Calistoga, a destination. You wouldn’t necessarily think outside of the box unless you were building from scratch,” he said, adding new plans will take into consideration the flow of the entire operation.
Chaney would not commit to saying the trademark orange umbrellas would be back, but because of their fire-treated fabric, they survived the fire along with the orange couch cushions.
“As much as we love the old buildings, now that we’ve been forced to rethink the property, we’re very open to looking at creative ideas,” he said. “We’re thinking about a lot of things to pay homage to the fire, and will definitely be including fire-retardant materials and sustainability in the rebuilding.”
Chaney is hoping to be partially operational for the coming crush season, and for the winery to fully open in the next two or three years.
Shifting to online sales
The fire spared the lion’s share of Fairwinds’ wine, and the winery has been continuing to sell wine, mostly through their wine club. Fairwinds and Hourglass have both seen their wine club memberships explode in the past year with “an outpouring of support” from people around the country asking what they can do to help,” Chaney said. “There’s not much they can do other than buy wine, but it’s giving their heartfelt support to the community.”
The winery has also partnered with Cal Fire with a percentage of sales going back to a fund.
“When we have tragedies we all come together and get through it and move on,” he said.
The experience with the fire, plus the pandemic, has forced them to become better marketers online.
“It’s been a double whammy. You can either crawl in a hole and blame, or you can figure out how to adapt and become stronger as a business,” Chaney said. “We have to think about how we share our wines in a different way, direct to consumer, especially for smaller wineries. I think COVID is a watershed moment in that people are establishing different kinds of relationships with wine brands.”
Chaney went so far as to say the future looks bright. The winery has been conducting tastings in front of the wine cave, and will be open for tastings once the pandemic allows. Clearing the trees and the underbrush has made the property much safer from future fires, and “over time the scars will heal, they may take on a different look.”
In the rebuilding of the property, both wineries have bringing guests back to Napa Valley at the forefront of their plans.
“The great power of wine lies in its romantic humanity and its ability to connect. Social media has a role to play in that, but there is no substitute for real, visceral human connection,” Smith said. “Social media represents both a way to connect and a way to alienate. In many ways, wine is the antidote of technology and the speed of modern culture. Its mysteries are more complex than its algorithms. We are not afraid of technology in wine, but we are hardly bound by it.”
Despite the devastation, signs of regeneration are already visible in the landscape.
“The scars remain and it’s hard to fathom the loss of history and beauty, but there was never any thought we wouldn’t rebuild,” Smith said. “Napa Valley is deep in our bones and we remain passionate advocates.”
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