Saturday, October 21, 2017

One Last Thought About the Wine Country Fires, and How You Can Help

It’s been so beautiful in Sonoma County the past couple of days. It rained Thursday night, about half an inch. Blue skies returned. Fresh air filled my lungs when I went outside yesterday. It was like tasting a bright, fresh Muscadet. And I felt like shit. Bone weary, as though I’d endured a prolonged beating at the hands of an angry Master Sommelier. And I was one of the lucky ones. How must the real victims of these terrible fires feel? There’s optimism on everyone’s lips wherever you go, but reality is sinking in.

The wine country wildfires were the worst wildfires in California history. By a lot. We’re Number One! We’re Number One! In the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, the sort of middle class neighborhood that reminds me of where I grew up in Long Beach, more than 1000 homes were destroyed. And I mean destroyed. A thousand homes! The neighborhood is still closed to the public to allow the residents who survived the chance to sift through the remains of their homes. I don’t know about you, but I can’t get my mind around that. And that’s just Coffey Park. There’s Fountaingrove, well, there was Fountaingrove, and there are several trailer parks, where the same scenes are taking place. And that’s just Santa Rosa. I’m leaving out Glen Ellen and Kenwood and Napa and Calistoga, all towns with fire stories to tell… People searching through the rubble for what remains of their former life. Everywhere they look is like a Salvador Dali painting, things melted in the remains of trees, the landscape filled with grotesque and surprising shapes created by the fire and its awful heat.

When you visit wine country, though, you don’t go to those places. Driving around Healdsburg, where I live, you wouldn’t even know there had been a fire. You’d just wonder why it was so quiet during such a busy time of year. This is true up and down Napa Valley, too. When I’ve spoken to people from other parts of the country the past week, they were all surprised at how beautiful Sonoma County looks. They’d been led to believe that visiting was crazy, that they were endangering their lungs, that the wineries were devastated. So many irresponsible narratives promoted on television, in the press, on the internet. It literally makes me sick.

There’s not going to be any big smoke taint issue in the 2017 wines. The only smoke taint you’re going to get is from the morons blowing that smoke up your ass. There will be isolated cases, but very few. And, hell, you’re worried about smoke taint? There will be more Brett than smoke taint, there always is. Corked wines are more of a problem. Only stupid, irresponsible people are talking about smoke taint.

Wineries are open, and are deserted. This was entirely predictable. I lived in Los Angeles working as a sommelier during the Rodney King riots. After the riots, business vanished. Where I worked went from 250 dinners on a weeknight to 20. It took years and years for business to return. But this is wine country. Everybody loves damn wine country. If you’re one of those whiners who complains about how crowded and terrible tasting rooms are, you should get on a plane and get out here NOW. I walked into a winery a couple of days ago at about 1:45 PM to pick up my wine club shipment. I was the first human they’d seen all day. And I barely qualify. Some of the few visitors I’ve spoken to said that they were worried, from news reports, that the wineries wouldn’t be open. But for those that burned down, and they are very few (I think the number is seven—out of about 900 between Sonoma County and Napa), everybody is open.

Vineyards didn’t burn down. A few suffered some damage. A few were destroyed. But you don’t drive around wine country and see fried cabernet everywhere. In fact, the vineyards are beginning to go to sleep, the fall colors just starting to appear, the vivid yellows and reds of the season. It’s simply gorgeous right now. The prettiest time of the year. It’s a little hard to appreciate it if you’re one of those who lived through the wildfires, it’s hard not to keep thinking about the events of the past couple of weeks, but nature goes about its business whether we’re rebuilding or not.

I spoke to a woman on Thursday who was here working for the insurance companies. Her job is to find places to stay for people who lost their homes. She’d been in Houston not so long ago, and then she was in Florida after Irma, and now she was in Sonoma County. You don’t want to be on her travel itinerary, that’s for sure. So many disasters, and all of them worthy of your charity. All of them. I think we’re all weary of the death and destruction from natural disasters this year. She was a lovely woman, bought some wine, joined the wine club. Someone who gets it, understands natural disasters in ways we can only imagine, deals with the people whose lives have changed in astonishing ways and with astonishing speed. She understood. She opened her purse and not just her heart. Too many just open their mouth.

I’ve already written about the great events of Winemakers and Sommeliers for California Wildfire Relief. I’m going to drop off some wine this weekend for the Bergamot Alley event in Healdsburg. Some damned nice wines, too. Saxum, I think, and Cayuse, and, well, stuff that might generate real money to help. I hope you sent wine, or that you’re planning to attend. I’ll see you there. The other events, in San Francisco and New York, look amazing, too. If you love California wine country, you need to go. Donate wine, or go there and buy something great. This isn’t to help wineries, this is to help people in our community who are suffering because of these mind-boggling fires. It’s about wineries and wine people helping others. We need your help. One more time, here’s the website:

And if you can get to Healdsburg on Sunday, tomorrow, the 22nd, you should attend the great “Pinot on the River” event. It’s one of the coolest events in wine country. 100 wineries pouring their best Pinot Noirs outdoors in the Healdsburg Town Square! Drive up from San Francisco, or Sacramento, or Oakland (you’ve had fires, you know what it’s like) and spend the day in the wonderful Healdsburg Town Square tasting Pinot Noir from some of the best producers in the world. Stick around and spend some money in a local restaurant afterward. Shop at the stores around the square. Everywhere I go, tasting rooms and restaurants are cutting shifts. They have to. There’s no business. Come up, have a blast, do some good for wine country, help someone keep their job in this terrible time. I promise you, this is a fantastic event. I know it’s last minute. I know you haven’t had time to plan. So what? Fires don’t give you much notice either. That’s no excuse. Here’s the website for “Pinot on the River.” I’ll be there, too. Who wants to buy me dinner? A portion of the proceeds from “Pinot on the River” go to the Boys and Girls Club of Central Sonoma County, and they need the money now more than ever. Lots of kids up here who lost their homes.

Indulge me one more time. There’s another great Pinot Noir event that you should attend. “Pinot Days” is another chance to taste some of the best Pinot Noirs on the planet. It’s being held on November 11th in San Francisco. Go, taste a bunch of great wine, then sign up for the mailing list and buy wine from every Sonoma County and Napa County winery whose wines you like. This isn’t hard. You can do this. Try not to ask too many of them how they did in the fire. We’re all a bit weary of that. Both “Pinot on the River” and “Pinot Days” are having attendance problems. Just like wine country. You can help by going. Get a bunch of friends together, buy some tickets and attend. For once, you can feel good about yourself for wanting to go get drunk on Pinot Noir! You’re doing it to help wine country! I’m so proud of you. Don't hurl on my shoes. Here’s the “Pinot Days” website. I’ll be there, too!

Finally, I’m sorry I’m not being funny when I post lately. I spent eight years writing HoseMaster of Wine™. I managed to create a voice that reaches more than 13 people! First, Kelli White reached out to me to plug the Winemakers and Sommeliers event, and I thought, why not? I reach a few people, maybe it will help. Maybe I can use my bully pulpit to do some good. Then it was Eric Hall from “Pinot on the River,” and Lisa Rigisch from “Pinot Days,” asking for a plug. I never do this. I get way too many insipid, insulting, stupid, poorly written marketing emails asking me to, but I don’t plug events. But this is different. And this just might be the last time. Thank you for indulging me. I try not to bother you with this kind of thing. But I will be personally grateful if you’d do something for wine country right now, and in the coming weeks. Donate money, donate your time, visit us in wine country, buy our wines, whatever works for you. Post this on FaceBook, tell everybody you know, get the word out. Please.

Thank You.


  1. Calistoga open for Business! Massages, mud baths, wine and friendly shop keepers! Get here soon,

  2. Hi Ron: Pinot seems to be the bittersweet wine of choice. I'm in the Willamette Valley, joining 70 Oregon pinot makers tomorrow for a benefit with 100 percent of proceeds going to northern California communities. I got pretty choked up when the Oregon producers called to say they wanted to do this, and I offered to come up here to help. The wine industry is after all, ONE industry...and it feels good to know that people are remembering that. The event is tomorrow at The Allison Inn in Newburg. Tons of great Oregon pinot noir to be tasted.
    Best, Karen

  3. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for gracing my blog with your presence. That sounds like a fantastic event in Newburg tomorrow! I'd love to be there. I'll be tasting Pinot in the Healdsburg Town Square, and I'll be sure to toast those generous and wonderful Oregon producers. Though I most certainly hope we never have to return the favor, there's no doubt that we would.

    Hey, Portland, I hope you're headed to Newburg tomorrow! Go just to meet Karen! Hell, She wrote the damned Bible.

    Like I have any fans in Oregon...