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Trial by fire

Published: Wed, October 25, 2017 @ 12:05 a.m.

Napa Valley vintner gives her personal account of the wildfires

If You Go...

What: Wine Academy: An Evening with Gabrielle Leonhard

When: Saturday Nov. 4, 7 p.m.

Where: Youngstown Country Club (event open to the public)


By: Brian Fry

Writer’s Note: I have been fortunate to make dozens of great contacts throughout California wine country over the years. One of the strongest relationships is with Gabrielle Leonhard of O’Connell Family Vineyards. Gabrielle will be in our Valley on Nov. 4 for a special event with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the wine country fire victims.

The terrible images of the wine country wildfires have reached all corners of the globe. I have received dozens of calls, texts and emails from Valley residents with questions about specific wineries or subregions of Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino counties. People feel a strong connection to the wineries they visit and wines they enjoy when returning home.

Paradise Ridge Winery, one of my favorite spots to visit, was completely destroyed in the fires. Several well-known wineries were destroyed or partially damaged, and nearly all wineries were threatened at some point.

Gabrielle Leonhard and her wines have become local favorites over the years, as she has shown a strong commitment to visiting our Valley each year. Leonhard shares wine and stories at local events, and she was the subject of a feature in this column three years ago. She was among the thousands who were given a mandatory evacuation order as the flames approached.

“We were evacuated for over a week, and it was a challenge to leave so quickly. There is an extreme shortage of short-term housing so we have had to bounce from friend to friend, but we were grateful for that. It was nerve-racking to watch TV as the fires approached our extended neighborhood. We have become an expert in interpreting the various fire maps!” she said.

Leonhard and her husband, Wayne, are tremendous resources for me and other local residents looking to learn and experience more on our trips to wine country. I had the chance to stay at the beautiful estate during my 2013 visit to Napa Valley and was haunted by the fear that the exquisite property could cease to exist.

“Our estate buildings and vineyards were saved. We bought hoses and set up sprinklers on the rooftops that went 24/7 to try to mitigate any flying embers. The fire came aggressively to the 5000 block. We are at the 4000 block, so approximately a quarter of a mile away. The smoke has been a huge challenge for our grapes and for us, but with each passing day, the skies clear and our hopes rise.”

The national press has documented the fires well, and the final toll will not be known for weeks. We do know that hundreds of thousands of acres have been burned, dozens of lives and thousands of structures lost, and several wineries have been completely or partially destroyed. If not for the work of the brave firefighters, the cost would be far higher.

Leonhard spoke of the overwhelming nature of it all.

“One of the most significant challenges in this process is when your house is spared, you know that it has come at the expense of others losing theirs as winds shift back and forth. It is a bittersweet moment. It is going to take a while for all of us to absorb what has happened here. It is unprecedented.”

“Chatting with some of the 8,000 firemen who populate our streets, hotels, fairgrounds with their tent village, etc., they said they have not seen anything like this before. We have several friends who lost their homes in the Silverado and Soda Canyon area. Most residents have not seen this area yet as these roads have been closed. They’re actively being reopened daily, but we still want to stay out of the way of working fireman to extinguish the last embers.”

One of the questions on many Valley wine lovers’ minds is about the 2017 vintage and the long-term future of wines from the three affected counties. Leonhard is cautiously optimistic on the vintage and is hopeful that people will begin visiting wine country again very soon.

“Normalcy is the best therapy. We’re excited to see our visitors return. There has definitely been economic impact, as wineries that are used to 500 visitors a day are now seeing only 10 to 15. The small boutique wineries will be the hardest hit as most of their wines are sold directly to consumers.”

“Pass the word: The wine country is open again. The winter rains will sprout wildflowers and green grasses, so the wound will begin to heal almost immediately. Next week should be clear. We have a beautiful valley with the fabulous wines to enjoy sipping wine surrounded by green vineyards and hills. It’s time to buy California wines!”

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