It took me a couple hours of driving around Napa Valley on Monday to notice what is really different this week.
If you drive north up State Route 29, the main drag, Napa Valley at first seems superficially untouched by the fire that destroyed wineries and smoke that has apparently destroyed most of a vintage. The vineyards growing down the gentle hills are still beautiful; purple and blue wildflowers are in bloom. Most wineries are open for business and so are restaurants (though there was only one other couple in normally-packed Oakville Grocery when we stopped for sandwiches.)
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On Silverado Trail, the foliage looks unusually dry in the south part of the valley, but it's a while before you get to visible fire damage. We smelled smoke, but we also smelled fermenting wine, and the latter is what you expect in October.
Eventually, though, I realized what I wasn't seeing: activity in the vineyards. We spent 3.5 hours driving around Napa Valley on Monday, and saw only one small crew in one vineyard, and that group was not picking grapes – they were setting a bonfire. There were no long trucks bearing fresh-picked grapes. We didn't even see the battered pickup trucks and SUVs favored by winemakers. Many of the vineyards look postcard-perfect (some do not), but there was no buzz of activity during what is usually a very busy season.
Is the Cabernet vintage lost? Normally I'd be the guy to ask; as US editor of Wine-Searcher, it's my responsibility to cover news like this. But this is my first day back at work and I just can't say. Sorry. Maybe much of the Cab has been picked earlier than usual, or maybe most of it will not be picked. But it matters a great deal. If 2020 is a lost Cab vintage in Napa Valley, the implications go beyond the loss of some great wines. Napa Valley makes only about four percent of the wine in California, but it occupies a much larger place in the public imagination. To many Americans, Napa IS wine. If Napa is lost, for many people, wine itself may be lost.
In 2014, the city of Napa was hit by a major earthquake of 6.0 on the Richter scale. Some buildings in downtown Napa were damaged and several wineries lost barrels and bottles of wine. I don't want to diminish the impact for people who lost their homes, but it wasn't even a county-wide event. Yet the national media responded by saying there might be a nationwide wine shortage. I was a guest on two radio shows, trying to explain what a small percentage of US wine was contained in these barrel rooms in the city of Napa, and how the great wines from Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles, etc., would not be affected, not to mention all the fine wines from Oregon and Washington. When I finished, one radio host said: "But it's still a good idea to stock up just in case, right?"
That Napa-centric thinking was reinforced by my hospital stays this summer. I chatted a lot with nurses and doctors about wine and food. One nurse asked me point blank: "Why is the wine in Napa better than everywhere else?" I would tell them they could visit the Santa Cruz Mountains or Anderson Valley for cheaper wine tasting, but some were skeptical. "If I am going to Napa, where should I go?"
To be fair, Napa Valley was also my own introduction to California wine. This week I remembered the thrill of my first drive up SR 29, seeing the famous winery names and the elegant structures. My first visit to Robert Mondavi Winery, like a pilgrimage. Eating pizza at Tra Vigne when Peter Mondavi and his family came in and sat at the next table; a rock star and his entourage, to me. And the first just-picked wine grapes I ever tasted ...
Monday's drive was an emotional trip for me, and for my wife as well. It was my first drive to anywhere but the hospital since June. I have been on medical leave after a needed surgery that hung over my head all summer. In consultation with the surgeon, we settled on the third week of September as the best time, mainly because of San Francisco's Covid-19 rate. I wanted to be out of the hospital before the city reopened for outdoor dining, because you don't want to be in a hospital when it's full of infectious patients. I knew late September/early October is wine harvest season, and covering it is part of my job, but I didn't worry about missing work because California harvests are all the same, right? It's always another great vintage, right? Another journalist could write the mid-harvest stories while I mended; I would return in mid-October to wrap up the vintage report. That was the plan.
Advised to avoid stress, I put myself on a complete news and Twitter blackout (recommended; my brain feels cleaner). Easier said than done; I was lying in a hospital bed watching an NFL game when a crawl came on announcing the Glass Fire. Well, nothing I can do about that, I thought, and stayed on my news blackout.
Imagine my horror when I finally began reading the news. This time it wasn't just smoke taint: wineries were destroyed. Winemakers I know lost their homes. Normally I get the news one small point at a time, the better to compile it for you –; it's easy to absorb negative news this way. By the time I even looked at this story, it was already ...
Let me tell you about Burgess Cellars. When I lived in Japan, I came to California on vacation and I was just another tourist who showed up at Burgess Cellars on a warm October afternoon, just as a load of grapes came in. Tom Burgess saw me eyeballing the grapes, waved me over, and said: "Do you want to taste some fresh-picked Cabernet Sauvignon?" Do I? You never forget your first taste: sweet, but not as much as table grapes, and I could feel the firm tannins. I ate several grapes and tried to preserve the rest of the bunch as a souvenir. Every time I think about Burgess I think about those grapes.
On Monday we drove up Howell Mountain to see Burgess Cellars. The walls of the winery, built in 1945, still stand, but the interior was destroyed. Just across a dirt road, the vineyard appears untouched. There's a sign telling visitors not to feed the goats, because a local group is doing so. We parked in the middle of the road in front of the burned-out winery but didn't see a single person in mid-harvest season.
Tom Burgess died in 2017, and his family sold the winery and the brand just two weeks before the fire to agricultural billionaire Gaylon Lawrence Jr., who also owns Heitz Cellar. Lawrence can afford the loss of the winery building, and I'm glad for the Burgesses that they cashed out just in time. But now Burgess Cellars is gone forever, and is never coming back, even if the brand does. I told my wife the story about the grapes, and how much tasting them meant to me. She wept.
White Sulphur Springs Resort: my wife and I stayed there on one of our first visits to Napa Valley. It's gone. Fortunately CalFire saved the charming city of Calistoga, where we have had mud baths and many nice meals. We reached Calistoga after driving around Howell Mountain, where the marks of the fire are visible everywhere: ground scorched black and white, trees cut to stumps.
There were two types of crews hard at work on Monday: forestry crews, cutting down dead trees, and power company crews. On Silverado Trail, a power line had been separated from two poles and hung almost to the ground, with one worker casually waving cars around it.
The fire stayed mostly east of Silverado Trail; most of the vineyards and wineries are on the west side of the Trail, and the fire mostly did not cross it. But you could see the efforts of the firefighters to stop it: so many tree stumps made by brave fire crews who cut down trees while surrounded by fire and smoke.
The damage is extensive on Howell Mountain, yet also idiosyncratic. One house is cinders while the neighboring house seems untouched.
You know what came through mostly fine? Vineyards. We saw this over and over: buildings destroyed, but vineyards looking unharmed. In fact, it now appears that vineyards surrounding a home are anything but ornamental, as we saw several examples of burn lines that went right up to a small vineyard but stopped there, leaving the buildings in the center untouched.
Some of this may be due to irrigation. At the intersection of Conn Valley Road and Howell Mountain Road, I noticed a vineyard with its irrigation turned on higher than I've ever seen. Water streamed down from piping a foot off the ground, looking like dozens of garden hoses with the spigots wide open. I'm not sure if something was broken there, but in any case the vineyard survived the fire despite being surrounded by scorched earth.
Howell Mountain is hurting. I'm told Spring Mountain also was hit hard, but the road up there was closed and I didn't pursue it; to be honest, I was already saddened by what we had seen, and the growing realization that 2020 could be a lost vintage for Napa Cabernet. Chardonnay and other varieties are mostly in the tanks and could be fine, but Cabernet is usually being harvested now, and it clearly is not being picked. Whether or not you're a Napa Cab fan, it is America's flagship wine: the next time you sit next to someone randomly on an airplane, just ask. If Napa wine takes a reputational hit, all wine takes a hit, at least in the US. This isn't the low-stress story I wanted to write on my return.
But there is good news, both for Napa Valley and for me. I'm sorry I teased with the hospital/surgery tidbit. Like many others in this awful year, I have had a difficult summer, but my prognosis is for 100-percent recovery by Thanksgiving. Just last week I put on my own socks for the first time in months. Tomorrow the world.
And when we drove south from St. Helena, on SR 29, we could have fooled ourselves that Napa Valley had not changed. We could still smell smoke, sure. But the vineyards looked beautiful: green and full of health. Normally they would be full of workers, and the roads would be full of trucks of fresh-picked grapes, sharing their perfume with the world. Not in 2020. I can relate; I wore my favorite leather jacket on Monday's drive, so I might look good on the surface. Just don't look closer. But Napa Valley is resilient, and so am I. The buildings are the parts of me the surgeon excised. It hurts. But the vineyards are me: they've had a blow, but they'll be fine next year. They can have a 100-percent recovery.
I certainly hope so. America needs Napa Valley wine. I don't like to admit it, but I need it too. I hadn't had wine since surgery, and I hadn't even wanted it. But driving down SR29, smelling some nascent fermentations – some wineries refuse to give up on 2020 – I became very thirsty for some wine.
My apartment is full of great wine from around the world, but none of the labels made me want wine last week. Even wounded, even empty, even blackened and dry in places, Napa Valley does more than make wine: it makes you want wine. It might even make you love wine.
Get well soon, Napa Valley. We'll get well together.