Winemaker Vows to Rebuild After Losing Battle With Wildfire

Throughout Northern California, where wildfires have raged for almost a week, killing at least 36 people and destroying about 6,000 buildings, residents are taking stock of what they have and what they have lost.

Many are feeling lucky to have survived with their lives. The fire’s path of destruction lacked rhyme or reason, destroying an entire winery in one case but leaving patio furniture outside the tasting room untouched.

Pierre Birebent, who has been a winemaker at the Signorello Estate for the past 20 years, said he feels lucky.

WATCH: Winemakers Vow to Rebuild Destroyed Winery

When the fire came to his winery on the Silverado Trail, the main artery of Napa’s Wine Country, Birebent grabbed a hose and tried to fight the flames himself. One of the winery’s owners, who was in the residence above the winery, had fled after alerting the staff to the fire.

Birebent lost the battle to save the winery, the tasting room, an office and the residence. 

“It was like fighting a giant,” he said.

​Damage unknown

It’s too early to know the extent of the damage to Northern California’s wine industry. Fires still burn around the hillsides, and pickers hurry to get the grapes off the vine before they are damaged by smoke, a condition known as “smoke taint.”

At Signorello, employees reported for work Friday, their first chance to see the damage.

Ray Signorello, the winery proprietor, went into Napa to rent temporary office space. He planned to keep the business going and rebuild.

“We can continue somewhat business as usual,” Signorello said.

“Our house is gone,” said Jo Dayoan, allocation director at the winery. “Our soul is not. We are family.”

Much to be thankful for

For Birebent, there are many things to be thankful for, among them, the 30-year-old vineyards, which didn’t burn.

“This is very important because it takes five years to plant the vineyard to get the first crop,” Birebent said.

Also spared by the fire was a warehouse where Signorello stored its 2016 vintage, as well as the last of the 2017 cabernet sauvignon grapes, which had been harvested just days before the fire and sat fermenting in 14 tanks at the edge of the parking lot.

But whether the wine inside the tanks is drinkable remains to be seen. Workers cleared leaves and ash from the outside of the tanks.

The wine from each of the tanks will be tasted and tested at a laboratory. The tanks hold 80 percent of the winery’s 2017 reds, which Birebent said was worth millions.

“It was so hot, we don’t know if the wine is still good or no,” he said.

As they take stock of the damage, the winemaker and the staff here are thinking about rebuilding, even as others continue to face wildfire dangers. The winery workers say they are lucky even as they stand in its ruins.

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