Northern California grape grower: Land of wine just fine after fires

Mention Snowpocalypse and anyone who lived in Atlanta in January 2014 will have a highly personal story to tell. Like being stuck for hours and hours on the highway, or abandoning their car and trudging miles home, or maybe not even getting home but instead taking refuge for the night on the floor of a Home Depot.

It was traumatic and something not easily forgotten.

Similarly, folk who reside in Northern California wine country have vivid recollections of the devastating fires from October, when flames swept through the region, singeing vineyards, burning buildings, displacing thousands of people and killing more than 40.

“The first thing: I smelled smoke,” said Tom Gore, a grape grower whose wine labels bear his name.

He farms property in Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, and Potter Valley in Mendocino County.

He recounted how a fire broke out on one of those properties. While it did not spread, it did not spare the home of one of his employees. Firefighters battled it and, after believing that they’d put out the blaze, left.

“It came back, and when we called 911, they said they would not come back because they were working on evacuating people — making sure people were safe, not fighting fire.”

That’s when alarm bells sounded for Gore, and again when he listened to the police scanner and heard, “This is going to make it to Santa Rosa. Get everybody out.”

Thinking back, what makes Gore shudder the most is imagining that it could have been worse, at least for him and his family. His first child was born five days before the fires broke out. His wife, Erin, and their infant son, Tom Gore III, were safe at home in Healdsburg, in northern Sonoma County, but the hospital where Erin gave birth only days earlier was evacuated. If the baby had been born a mere five days later, what would they have done, he wondered?

The area he lived in was put under preliminary evacuation — meaning, get your backs packed and “if we tell you to go, go” — but the family never had to flee.

“It was an intense time,” Gore said.

Gore recounted that experience as he sat across the table from me at City Winery. He was visiting Atlanta as part of a three-city tour to market his new releases: a 2016 sauvignon blanc (that he rightly called “sunshine in a glass”), a 2015 chardonnay and a 2015 cabernet sauvignon, all value wines that you can find at wine shops and grocery stores around the metro area.

Gore launched his line four years ago. The Tom Gore Vineyards portfolio includes a total of five labels, his favorite being the cabernet. “I think cabernet represents what a grower does beautifully. What you taste in the field is what you taste in the bottle,” he said.

What of that farming and those fields now? Gore and his employees — 30 full-timers and 100 seasonal workers — tend approximately 1,500 acres scattered around Sonoma and Mendocino counties. What does the landscape look like some four months after the fires? What of the 2017 harvest? And what about future vintages?

I peppered Gore with such questions.

His 2017 vintage will be fine, he said, since 95 percent of the fruit had been harvested before the fires broke out.

The main concern about any fruit still hanging on the vine during the fires was that it would suffer from smoke taint. Like other growers, Gore isolated that harvested fruit and had it tested. “Very little came back positive,” he said. That crop was not used for juice.

“In the vineyard, it’s not much of an issue,” Gore said of his plants. He’ll need to replace some irrigation pipes that melted, but the big cost, he said, is in rebuilding homes, like the eight that burned down near his own.

The conversation with Gore prompted me to ring up some friends, Bryan and Michelle Lipa, a couple who live in Napa and work in the wine industry.

Michelle is employed by Trig Collective, a branding and communications agency for California wine country. Bryan spent time as a sommelier at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and as a salesperson for Staglin Family Vineyard before becoming a partner with Scale Wine Group, which focuses on national distribution for boutique northern California wines.

I hadn’t spoken with them when the fires broke out. They were eager to talk about their experience.

“It’s still hard to believe it happened,” Bryan said. “It was apocalyptic. It looked like Satan came to visit Napa Valley.”

He recalled how flames lit the sky at night, how the fire increased the air temperature by 15 degrees and the smell of burnt plastic permeated the air.

“We did not leave,” said Michelle, “mainly because Bryan wanted to keep track of the fires. They were a mile behind us and a mile to the south of us.”

Bryan began to tick off the wineries that were damaged or destroyed by the fires, ones like Signorello and Roy Estate, the latter which burned to the ground.

Although the Lipas have only lived in Northern California since 2011, they’ve grown highly attached to the region. Gore, having spent his entire life there, is even more sentimental about the place. He remembers a time when the landscape was dotted more with prune trees than grapevines.

“It’s changed a lot,” he said.

These days, the California wine industry produces about 85 percent of all U.S. wines. Sonoma and Napa are home to 1,100 wineries. The region, which wasn’t a tourist destination when Gore was born in 1975, now attracts roughly 24 million tourists each year.

What worries Gore is that a misplaced fear that the vista will be one of charred hillsides instead of pristine vineyards will hamper prospective visitors from coming. The landscape is getting back to normal, he said.

“The way the rains came this year — they came slowly – allowed the grass to take root. You wouldn’t be able to tell (there had been fires) unless you really looked,” he said. “Sonoma is beautiful and open for business.”

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