A Sonoma County Holiday, 2019

A Sonoma County Holiday, 2019

Reflections on the Past Three Years in Sonoma County

As Christmas is now barely in the rear-view mirror and New Year’s Day coming up fast in Sonoma County, we have much loss on which to reflect, and much to be grateful for in the coming year. It is not a stretch to say that the defining events of 2017 and 2019 have been the disastrous fires in The North Bay, most of it inflicted upon Sonoma County. My co-winemaker/proprietor of Alquimista Cellars, Patrick Dillon, has written eloquently about first response and what we were all doing in the throes of the Tubbs fire in his “Alquimista Cellars, Earth, Wind, Fire and 500 Frittatas”.

As a summary, Patrick cooked (he’s also a chef as well as a Pulitzer-prize-winning writer) – his most recent book was a cookbook (Open Range) – for 500 people a day. Evacuation centers (including my family) and first-responders were recipients of his culinary skills from the CERES kitchen, a place where teenagers are normally trained in the culinary arts and then the meals are delivered to seriously-ill patients at their homes. After October 9th 2017, the kitchen was turned into a culinary command-center, feeding those displaced and those fighting the blazes. We were almost all volunteering in one way or another; my wife was a volunteer for almost a year at the Sonoma County 2-1-1 center.

You may have heard this saying before, and I always thought “isn’t that nice” in a polite sort-of-way when I heard it about other places, but after having lived it myself, we are “Sonoma Strong”. As Patrick chronicled, the best came out in almost everyone. Food from stores and restaurants, clothes, blankets, all kinds of goods that we all take for granted on a daily basis (hot water and electricity are SOO under-rated!) and volunteers, so many that the county had a hard time finding tasks for everyone who wanted to help. And the giving continues through this 2019 giving season.

And yes, now it is Christmas season. The last FEMA assistance center is open (once again, now 2019), and we are cleaning up. Here are some stats for our North Bay area alone:

  • The death toll is 44 for the Tubbs fire alone. As with the Camp Fire in Paradise CA where twice as many people died in 2018, some missing may never be found.
  • In the North Bay, over the two years of fires in the North Bay, $11.5 Billion in insurance claims have been registered. Compare with Katrina, at $41.1B (the worst disaster in US history), and the Oakland Hills fire (previous worst in CA history) at $1.3B.
  • $9B of that is from Sonoma County, the hardest-hit of the fires.
  • 5400 homes were destroyed and over 12,000 damaged, including 5+% of the Santa Rosa housing stock with another 5% damaged.

Imagine 10% of your town destroyed or damaged. Compared again to the Paradise fire where most of the town burned to the ground, in my own neighborhood, over 1,300 homes were destroyed in Coffey Park, deep into Santa Rosa. During the Kincade fire of this year, our winery was evacuated and for 8 days we could not get in to manage the active ferments and recently barreled wines. During that time, we would have logged about 60 hours or more working with the wines and, as a result of our inability to tend to our wines during that time, we are dealing with more sluggish and stuck ferments and very unhappy lees (read: reduced aromas) in the barrels than I have had to deal with in just about all of my vintages combined. Our main tenant is to push the envelope on our winemaking. As I like to say, it is easier to be right there when your kids are starting to teeter on the rails and give them a nudge here and there rather than waiting for them to go off the rails and having to get everything back on track. How does this work (or not,) for this vintage? Because we “don’t practice safe winemaking”, including:

  • Using native (“wild” yeast or uninoculated) fermentations.
  • Push our yeast to their limits of heat tolerance with warmer fermentations.
  • Go to barrel “sweet and dirty” – not finishing ferments comfortably in tanks and then settling out solids before going to barrel.
  • Eschew yeast nutrients and fermentation aides, relying on the wines to form their own stress aromas for increased complexity rather than keeping them fat and happy.

We are hard at work now trying to rectify some of the problems borne of 8 days of unattended yeast without power, water or our hands helping to guide and partner with the yeast. Our financial losses are as yet unknown but will run into the many of thousands of dollars before all is said and done.

So what is happening today outside of our little winery? Here are some more figures for Sonoma:

  • November hotel occupancy rate remains in Santa Rosa at 85% due to fire victim housing, the highest it has been in the last 13 years in this 2-year period, since significant new hotel rooms were built.
  • The long-term occupancy tax by the county has been waived and pricing of rent and/or hotel fees for fire victims is at 45% of seasonal rates.
  • A new County office has been created: “Recovery and resilience” office is assisting the affected
  • Sonoma County lost tens of millions in revenue shortfall due to the fire
  • Volunteering is still at an all-time high with personal time and resources almost overwhelming some charitable organizations

On a personal note, my good friends for whom I make wine under the Ancient Oak wine label lost everything in the Tubbs Fire, excepting their lives. They barely made it out of their burning ranch and vineyard, with seconds to spare. Their neighbors just above them on the ridge were not so lucky and perished in the blaze. I am lucky enough to have my oldest son safe, after fleeing his home moments before it burst into flame.

Just about everyone in Sonoma County has either been directly affected by these disastrous fires or directly knows/works with people who have lost so much. But in this time, I no longer look at a dirty bathtub after the grandkids have bathed or a leaky roof or a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Heck, we have HOT water, a roof over our heads, and cluttered cutlery and crockery means we have loved ones to feed and the means to do so. I will never, ever, complain about a stack of after-dinner wash-up again.

I’ve always said I’m the luckiest man I know. I have 6 beautiful children and now grandchildren, have raised them alongside my wife in the wineries and vineyards I lived in and tended, and get to do something I absolutely love doing on a daily basis: grow and make wine. This season reinforces those sentiments and I remain, yours truly, the luckiest man I could imagine.

So let’s all raise a glass to our continued good fortune, no matter what our current station may be, and look forward to a 2020 with the abundance of friends, family, and fulfillment – the “things” that really matter most to us all.

In Vino Veritas,
Greg La Follette, Alquimista Wines

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