On the evening of October 8, we witnessed a furry of hurricane-force winds, the likes of which had never been seen in Wine Country before. Starting in the northwestern section of the Napa Valley, at the foot of Mt. St. Helena north of Calistoga and traveling west towards Santa Rosa, trees fell onto power lines and several fires broke out simultaneously all over our Valley. Suddenly, the mountains of each side of the valley were engulfed, from the south-eastern hillside in Atlas Peak and up Soda Canyon, along the Silverado trail, to the eastern hills along Mayacamas and Trinity Road, Dry Creek and into traveling over the hill into Bennett Valley, destroying homes and businesses and leveling subdivisions as far west as Santa Rosa
Without power in most of the Valley, many people had no cell service and couldn’t be reached. Transistor radios became all the rage for information. At HL Vineyards, we also had no water, as our pump wouldn’t work for the well or pressure tank for the house, so we couldn’t irrigate the vineyard or landscaping around the house (or flush the toilet without refilling it with jugs of bottled water, or wash clothes or dishes or fill the coffee pot… the list goes on!) for 13 days.
Businesses were closed for many days, not being able to get employees to work or product to sell. Parts of St. Helena felt like a ghost town, and everyone was on edge with their most beloved possessions piled up in the back of their cars, just in case. There was only one restaurant open in St. Helena, and it became the meeting place for evacuation stories and amazing wines — lots of older wines came out of cellars that we never thought we would get the opportunity to try again ( I opened a 1997! Our first vintage!), and were shared over a meal.
Our Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the Grenache and Carignan grapes for the Rose had been picked more than a month prior, and were safely fermented dry in the tanks and ready to be racked off the lees. But our main concern was now getting the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit off of the vines. Without power for a few days, many wineries relied on backup generators. But there were still holdups in scheduling grapes to be delivered and crushed at the winery, as wineries lost employees or staff was evacuated or stranded and couldn’t come to work. And our vineyard manager had many of their crews off fighting fires and plowing fire breaks with their heavy equipment in order to save homes and vineyards of their clients.
The winds continued to blow and the fires spread. Smoke and ash filled the air, and suddenly there was a rush on smoke masks at our local hardware stores. Plumes of smoke would develop from peaks on either side of the valley as new fires popped up on all sides, but remarkably, the eastern hillside near Howell Mountain and the valley floor escaped any threat.
Finally, our incredible crew from Barbour Vineyard Management assembled at day break, with stacks of picking bins, trucks for hauling fruit to the winery, fork lifts to stack the bins and bobcats to haul the bins down the rows. Two crews of nine pickers and several friends in the industry spent five hours picking the entire ranch to get the grapes into the winery as quickly as possible. Amazingly, there was very little damage from either the heat or the smoke!
The fruit was separated into the premium HL (from the center block) and the Two Old Dogs blocks, washed crushed and de-stemmed, then sent to the stainless steel fermenting tanks to rest at a cool temperature overnight. Six barrels with stainless steel caps were filled 2/3 full, for the barrel fermenting part of our Herb Lamb Vineyards Reserve wines program, with the final selection to be determined in a year.
After fermenting for more than a week with gentle pump-overs, the wines were syphoned off of the skins and seeds and the juice continued to ferment until dry, when they were pressed off and put into barrels to age another 20 months. By all accounts, the wines in the barrel are beautiful and picked fully ripe, with cherry/berry flavors and bright fruit.
As we reflect, we’re still a bit raw with emotions and memories of being evacuated, living with friends for a few days, or taking their families away from the North Bay because of the poor air quality and threat of fires. So glad to say that we are all back in business and moving forward to help others and invite customers back to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Come try our restaurants, wines and hospitality and see the passion we have for working hard to make the finest wines we can to share with you!