I was in Italy on October 8 when news of rampant fires in the wine country hit international media. Friends and family texted alerts and updates to make sure I knew “real time” what was going on. But ”real time” quickly became very confusing as the multiple fires, and stories about the fires across social and mainstream digital media, raged faster than the fires themselves.
I arrived in Napa yesterday (November 6) to interview Darioush Khaledi, who is chairing the 2018 Cincinnati International Wine Festival. I frankly braced myself for the worst, with pictures of the fires and resulting damage fresh in my mind. One of the early “real time” reports, cascaded throughout multiple media outlets, was that Darioush had burned to the ground. (Spoiler alert: it did not.) That incorrect news was swept up in early reports — sadly correct — that the Signorello property was lost. Darioush is right next door.
Exactly one month later, it’s a different story. If I hadn’t known about the fires — well, I might not have observed much difference. Driving to the property on Napa’s Silverado Trail from SFO was just like every other fall visit to the Bay Area. The skies were crisp blue, puffy white clouds announcing a future rain with striated wisps of gray, and there was plenty of traffic. Just like always. Until I got to the old dairy business on Highway 121, just west of Domaine Carneros. It was gone, multiple buildings melted into the ground, trees and underbrush turned to ash from tinder. I held my breath as I rounded the curves toward Domaine Carneros, letting it out only when I found the winery to be untouched.
Then all returned to normal. Until I turned into the driveway of Darioush. The charred hillside where Signorello’s winery once stood made it all quite real. I am only including this one photo. I am not a professional photographer, and I couldn’t bring myself to go in search of further tragedy. So just this one:
To the many stories that have already been written about the fires and the aftermath, I would like to add perspective from my interview with Darioush Khaledi and winery president Daniel DePolo. According to Dan, “the fire was a humanitarian and housing disaster. Only six wineries were lost or seriously damaged. But 3,000 homes were damaged and people have no place to live. The vineyards served as a firebreak. Vines don’t burn.”
Indeed, the vineyards in Napa look just like any other fall harvest cycle with the leaves turning brown to prepare for winter. At Darioush, only the olive trees and landscaping was burned. “The fire skipped around randomly” as evidenced by the total loss of nearby neighbor Signorello. In Napa, the sturdy oaks and general lack of ground cover protected the Valley to the east of the pine-covered Mayacama Range. “We are all beyond grateful,” according to Darioush Khaledi, who with his wife Shaphar lives at the winery in the manner of French chateaux.
More good news: 80-90 % of harvest was complete for most vineyards. The plan at Darioush? Test the remainder of the crop, and if the grapes are tainted, they will be discarded. Dan DePolo believes this will be the Napa standard so that consumers can be confident in future purchases of the 2017 vintage.
Wineries may not have been physically touched, but business is down 50% during what would ordinarily be Napa’s peak season for tourism. That said, the Darioush tasting room was busy, the streets are bustling, and both wineries and restaurants are welcoming customers with open arms. The mood of the community is upbeat, full of well deserved pride for the communal response to a crisis (including firefighting crew from near and far). “Things are not back to normal yet. We lost a month of business. But you can’t really tell just by driving around.”
Kashy Khaledi, who is Darioush’s son, celebrated the grand opening of new new winery called Ashes and Diamonds just two days ago. In a perhaps prescient act, the new winery’s website includes a poem written by 19th century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid that scrolls across the bottom in stanzas on each page:
“So often are you as a blazing torch with flames of burning rags falling about you flaming, you know not if flames bring freedom or death. Consuming all that you must cherish if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest. Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond, the Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”