A return to California and the heart of the industry helps exorcise memories of the fire
In February of 2018, I found myself booking flights and hotels for my return to Northern California—my first trip since we were evacuated from the fires of October 2017. I needed to return and face my thoughts that have haunted me ever since. I needed to give back to the wine industry that needed help. That opportunity arose with my invitation to Premier Auction in Napa, which is a trade and media event held at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus. This historic building is the old home of the Christian Brothers winery, which contains a restaurant and teaching facility as well as Brother Timothy’s amazing collection of corkscrews from around the world.
We had several tasting opportunities prior to the auction. The first stop was the Robert Mondavi Winery for a blind perspective tasting of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from 18 producers, featuring the 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages. We finished with eight producers of Napa Sauvignon Blanc to cleanse the palate.
The next stop was at Shafer Vineyards in Napa’s Stags Leap appellation. There were more than 150 trade and media people there from all over the world. This great winery is located at the base of the rock outcrop known as Stags Leap. I have been friends with the Shafers from their first vintage release of 1978.
Saturday was auction day at the CIA Greystone. The top lot of wine sold was 2016 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, with 20 cases selling for $ 100,000. There were more than 190 lots of wine available and all sold for well out of my price range. The Premier Auction raised more than $ 4.1 million, helping to preserve, promote and enhance the Napa Valley brand. This is the most prestigious barrel tasting and auction in the country, if not the world. It was a rewarding week of tastings and educational seminars.
Sunday morning I found myself up early. I drove from Napa to Sonoma by way of the path of destruction that the Tubbs Lane Fire caused. I drove over the mountains, surrounded by scorched trees, brush and ground, and down into the beautiful Alexander Valley, which was unharmed by the fire. Breakfast that morning found me in Healdsburg at my friend’s bakery, Cousteau’s, an institution in Healdsburg.
Then it was time to head south on Highway 101 to Santa Rosa and the Coffey Park neighborhood. This was once a high-density housing development of about 25 square blocks. Now it is cleared vacant lots, showing the fierce fury of the raging wildfire. Homes, business and people were lost, and I had been in the middle of it.
The drive back to Napa Sunday afternoon took me past the southern edge of the fire, on Mark West Road to Calistoga by way of Petrified Forest Road.The erratic movement of the fire was incredible. Homes were leveled on one side of the road, and on the other not touched.
I have been through earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes but nothing as frightening as a raging wildfire. I am in total awe of the destruction that it caused. This was a good day to finally ease my thoughts and soul. The rebuilding has begun!
The wine industry suffered some damage, but it was minimal. Some buildings were lost, some vineyards damaged, homes lost, but the spirit remains. Wine country is thriving.
Fast forward to April of this year, and back to California I went. Yes, another auction: this time the SOCO Barrel Auction in Sonoma County. I have attended this event three out of the last four years. It is my favorite event in California. There are more than 100 wine lots, all one of a kind, available to the highest bidder.
There were two scheduled preview tastings the day before the auction: Coppolo, which had the appellations of Dry Creek, Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley, and Martin Ray, which had the Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Petaluma Gap appellations.
The SOCO auction was at MacMurray Estate, once owned by actor Fred MacMurray. What a beautiful setting for an auction or any other event. The auction netted $840,000, which set a record. There were only 100 lots of wine.Two lots were dedicated to assisting those directly affected by the October fires. Some of the higher selling lots were Sonoma Rising “Fortitude,” with 20 cases sold for $29,000, and Sonoma Rising “Resilience,” with 20 cases that sold for $70,000. Fortitude was a Cabernet Sauvignon-based lot from the Sonoma Valley appellation. The Resilience lot was Pinot Noir from Russian River and Sonoma Coast appellations. Both were extremely well made and varietally correct. Each lot was put together by the collaboration of several wineries.
The third trip was in the middle of June and took me to Mendocino County. I was invited to the Grazianao family 100th anniversary. Four generations of the family were present for the celebration and pig roast. It was fun to mingle with the who’s who of Mendocino County. The trip included dinner with David Ramey and visits to Dry Creek Vineyard and Pedroncelli, all longtime friends of mine.
The last stop was special. I had the opportunity to watch my son, Branch, in action at the Spire Groups Fieldstone facility. This is done right in the middle of the Alexander Valley. He tastes, sells to, and educates consumers about this group’s selection of wines from around the world.
California is alive and bustling with much energy. The wine industry has brought renewed life back to Northern California and has provided some relief to the victims of the fires. Visitors are returning to spend money and enjoy the hospitality of hotels, restaurants and wineries, helping to rejuvenate the area.
Visit and you will see what I mean. Wine country is thriving.
John Murray is proprietor of State Line Liquors in Elkton, Md., and a regular contributor to Out & About.