California wildfires impact Sonoma Cellar owners

2007
Most vineyards in Northern Sonoma County did not burn in the wildfires because of well-tended, old vines. (Courtesy Photo)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected] 

Rick Myllenbeck was working at Sonoma Cellars one evening last week when he got an email from a friend:

“Are you aware of the fires in Sonoma? It looks like Armageddon.”

Around the same time, Rick’s wife, Elizabeth, read a Facebook post:

“Santa Rosa is burning.”

Elizabeth and Rick Myllenbeck pose at an event at the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria. (Courtesy Photo)

Ever since, the Alexandria-based couple has been tracking the status of their Sonoma home from afar, through online fire maps and reports from friends. The Myllenbecks’ house falls three blocks short of Highway 12, which has been serving as a barrier to the fires. That puts them within a couple hundred feet of one of the last remaining wildfires in Northern California, which was 80 percent contained at press time, according to the California state website.

Most of the fires are 63 to 100 percent contained since breaking out as early as Oct. 8, according to the site. Residents of Rick and Elizabeth’s community, Oakmont Village, were evacuated Oct. 15, along with more than 100,000 people throughout Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Napa, California.

On Oct. 17, the Myllenbecks learned that the evacuation of their neighborhood was over and that it was safe to repopulate.

“The house is a donut hole,” Elizabeth said.

Her metaphor is legitimate: the maps on the Santa Rosa Press Democrat website show wildfires almost completely encircling Oakmont. The adult living community sits on a golf course and is home to more than 4,500 residents. It is one of the only residential communities near a still-active fire.

“If that got torched,” Rick said, “that would have been a catastrophe, so they really put the resources to kind of make sure the fires didn’t go there.”

This photo, taken from the back patio of Rick and Elizabeth’s house, captures Hood Mountain before it was scorched by the Northern California wildfires. (Courtesy Photo)

The house in Oakmont Village has been in the Myllenbeck family since 1971. The couple said the spontaneous movement of the wildfires has kept them apprehensive. When their community cleared one fire, another emerged on the other side; when they thought a fire was small and contained, it suddenly grew five times larger.

“The air is so dry that things are just spontaneously combusting, and things are just popping or there’s an errant spark. Things carry over, and hit some dry leaves or whatever, and it just goes,” Rick said.

It’s not just the family home the couple worries about.

Rick and Elizabeth opened Sonoma Cellar, a wine tasting room and bistro on King Street, two years ago to bring the west coast wine tasting culture to Old Town.

“We wanted it to be what we call ‘unforced cool,’ so you just kind of come in, it’s casual, it’s cool, it’s laidback, people feel really welcome,” Elizabeth said.

“Thirty years ago for me, wine was an interest,” Rick said. “Twenty years ago it became a hobby. Ten years ago it became a passion, but now it’s a business. So we just kind of grew up with it.”

Sonoma Cellar’s wine list is primarily composed of wines from within the United States, several coming from vineyards in Sonoma County. The owners taste every type of wine they bring into the store and work hard to ensure each bottle they offer meets their standards.

Elizabeth said the majority of the vineyards in the Sonoma and Napa area were not damaged in the wildfires because wineries act as natural firebreaks.

“A lot of the vineyards themselves were not crisped,” Rick said. “They weren’t charred because the vines are well-tended. There’s not going to be a lot of stuff to burn, and so the fire just kind of goes around them. The big question is: what’s the smoke damage going to be like?”

Another issue for vineyards is the loss of electricity. Elizabeth said 75 percent of grapes in the area had already been harvested by the time the fires came through, but that winemaking is a time-sensitive process.

The Mayo Family Winery, one of the vineyards the Myllenbecks get their wine from, found a power-free winemaking solution:

Members of the Berthoud family help crush grapes at the Mayo Family Winery in Sonoma Valley. (Courtesy Photo)

“There’s pictures of people coming into the winery, and they have masks on so they can breathe, and they’re literally stomping the grapes by foot because you can’t use the destemmers,” Elizabeth said. “I thought it was really cool – people stomping grapes basically in the parking lot in these big tubs.”

Although many vineyards like the Mayo Family Winery were undamaged and able to continue producing, Rick said the fires could impact the taste of the wine.

Rick said grapes in different regions adopt certain characteristics from their terroir – the complete natural environment where they are grown, including soil, topography and climate. For example, grapes grown in a rocky area may produce a flinty wine, while grapes grown by the ocean may generate a briny flavor.

“There’s probably going to be a smokiness to the Sonoma and Napa wines going forward,” Rick said, “because the leaves absorb that, but then also the ash goes into the earth, and then that trickles down, and the roots will take it. So this will be carried over, and it may or may not be good. We don’t know.”

The couple normally visits their Sonoma home every three to four months, but Rick said he might make a trip out once the fires settle to see the damage and talk with some of the winemakers.

“I just can’t image what Hood Mountain is going to look like. And behind us as well – that whole ridge is crisped,” Rick said. “It’s just sad. That’s going to be charred. The view’s not going to be what it was for years.”

“Looking at the photos online of the before and after, it’s just, wow. Unbelieveable,” Elizabeth said.

Rick said being in the midst of a disaster had given him more respect for first responders. He also said several community members stayed behind to help provide food and water for the firefighters.

“We are so, so grateful for them more than anything else and just the heroic efforts of people to save our community,” he said.

Elizabeth said she was hopeful that the predicted rain in Northern California this Wednesday and Thursday would stifle the final flames.

“We’ll know more about the effects of the fire itself as more information comes in from our friends and from the winemakers as things settle down and people start to know more information,” she said. “I think that we’ll just get a better feel about what’s going to happen and what those needs are.” “I think there’s a lot of people ready for 2018,” Rick said.

“We’ve had a tough one with Mother Nature; I just hope it’s not the same next year.”

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