Growth From Ashes
This has probably been one of the harder pieces I have had to write. With the wild fires coming on top of the pandemic, survival has taken on an entirely new meaning that permeates our daily existence. That said, we made it through the fires without anyone getting hurt, so we count ourselves lucky and have thrown ourselves into the process of rebuilding what was lost. And we were able to shed one layer of fear by getting vaccinated, and the feeling of lightness of being that vaccination afforded myself and others was and continues to be tangible. Our business is based largely on the idea of enjoying food and wine in the company of friends, and while people have continued to enjoy wine (and buy it), we have been cut off from the social aspects of wine which are really the reason for being. We are overjoyed at the thought of scheduling events once again, and of going to our favorite restaurants, and of dancing to live music. Our first Fireside Friday this past week was proof positive that many of you feel the same way.
It was a long road to get back to hosting another Fireside Friday at the winery. We evacuated on a Tuesday evening in August, coincidentally the same day we finished bottling 1800 cases of 2019 vintage Homestead, Santa Cruz Syrah, Dune & Mountain, Riesling (yes, it is coming back!), Wirz Old Vine Carignan and Rodnick.farm Old Vine Mourvedre. By the time the weekend came around, we still had no idea whether or not the winery, vineyards or my home had survived. Then I got sent some smoke filled photos from a neighbor one of which showed the remains of the house, and another which appeared to show the winery fully intact. The feelings one gets when confronted with losing a home of 18 years, and 50+ years worth of possessions and artwork were overwhelming to say the least, but this was somehow counterbalanced by the joy of knowing that the winery survived by some miracle. We have no doubt that miracle involved CalFire folks working to defend it as everything around the winery burned to the ground, and the fire crept up to within feet of the building, and we are talking about a building built out of bone dry redwood siding. Surely someone had been putting water on it and putting out those ground fires that crept up to the edge of it. Losing a house is one thing, but losing ground control for the business with the entire 2019 vintage within (bottled and still in barrels) right before the beginning of the 2020 harvest would have been devastating. We did lose all of our early vintages of Big Basin wine that were stored in what I thought was the most secure and safe location – the wine cellar of my home. The substantial library stash of 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 vintages was incinerated and melted into slag, along with countless magnums and double magnums, not to mention the Big Basin educational wine collection totaling approximately 2000 bottles of wines from around the world dating back years! But again, I count us fortunate that we were all safe, and that we had a winery to operate out of for the 2020 vintage. Now we had to figure out how to make that happen…
Beautiful Hues of Grenache and Violet Shades of Syrah
In 2000, we planted the first four acres of the Rattlesnake Rock block. Most of the planting was from John Alban’s Côte Rôtie field selection. He also recommended that I try a few clones, so we also planted Syrah 877 and 174. We used a couple of different rootstocks across these different strains. As fate would have it, all of the 877 on one of the rootstocks succumbed to the mysterious Syrah decline. Thus, I was presented with my first opportunity in 2006 to alter our palette of vines planted. Some vines were replaced with Grenache (also a field selection from John Alban), some were replaced with clone 470, and some with another Alban field selection he called ‘Power Block’. 2006 was also the year we first planted the Old Corral block and we used Alban ‘Power Block’ for that as well. And we planted a small block we call ‘Little Grenache’ to more of the Alban Grenache field selection.
A German news crew had seen the press about my house and the winery in the Chronicle and reached out to me to see if I wanted to accompany them to the property. Since they were not letting anyone in except emergency personal and some journalist, I jumped at the chance. The feeling was unexplainable driving up 236, China Grade and Memory and seeing house after house destroyed. Needless to say, it was an emotional experience, especially seeing the remains of a home I had spent years of my life designing and overseeing the construction of, along with substantial swaths of vines that were completely toasted by the intense fires. It would take many subsequent visits to more fully assess the extent of damage and to get to work on the necessary repairs. Luckily, we were able to persuade a fire chief that we needed to get a generator into the winery to power our cooling system back up.
Our team here at Big Basin was incredible throwing themselves into the process of getting the winery back online for harvest. We had no water, no power, access was difficult, we had no entry fence to provide security, and that was just the beginning. Doug, who had also lost his home, and our winemaker Blake, who had to evacuate his home in Bonny Doon which experienced major smoke damage, both jumped into action to start getting ready for harvest. We found someone to truck in water for us. Doug rented a huge 3 phase diesel generator and worked with an electrician to power up the winery. We had lost all of our farm tractors and operation vehicles, so I secured a rentals so we would have a way to harvest (if we had anything worth harvesting) and to move the grape pomade into the compost piles. We also had no fermenters to ferment in, so we jumped on acquiring some new ones and borrowing some from other wineries. I had used our dually Ford truck to evacuate with my camper, so fortunately we still had the truck to haul grapes. And miraculously our 20 foot gooseneck trailer we use to carry the bins survived with just a few burn marks.
And so, we threw ourselves into harvest season with Blake taking the lead on winemaking, Doug hauling grapes, and with me leading the efforts on the insurance claims, finding a place to live, and visiting vineyards to check on grape ripeness. We had a hope to salvage something from the estate crop, but testing indicated major smoke taint. We even tried to press a load of Syrah grapes with the hope of making rosé, but the juice tasted like a wet ashtray and ended up smoke tainting the press, requiring several extra hours of cleaning to get it ready for some better grapes. It became very clear at that point that we would be dropping 25 tons of beautiful estate fruit, just about ready for harvest, on the ground.
The 2020 harvest will definitely go down as the most surreal in our history, I hope. The fires continued to rage for weeks choking us all in smoke. We anxiously awaited test results on grapes to determine if they dodged the smoke taint bullet and would allow us to produce wines with no discernible affects from the smoke. For a couple of months, we each jumped around to find a place to live. I stayed in four different places in my truck camper before someone offered up a condo for a few days, then I got my insurance company to foot the bill in a local hotel for another week, and then finally landed in a long term rental. Doug and Blake had similar stories and it was unsettling for all of us to be uprooted, but by keeping our focus on harvest, we made the best of it. Our other vineyard sources came through the fires ok. Corralitos vineyards were far enough from the fires and smoke that any smoke affects are below sensory thresholds. And our Gabilan Mountain vineyards also were far enough away from any active fires and smoke that they too came through just fine.
Whether or not a vineyard becomes unusable due to wildfire smoke is a combination of complex factors. The main factors are: how close is the fire, how dense is the smoke, and how long does the dense smoke last. Apparently, the number of hours it takes for the smoke to get from the point of ignition to a vineyard is very important. With the fire burning on all sides of our estate vineyard for days we didn’t have much hope. The smoke literally is absorbed into the skins and chemically combines with compounds in the grapes. For this reason, smoke taint is not always noticeable in freshly squeezed berries. However, fermentation releases these compounds and they become for more noticeable if they are present in large enough quantities. And no, there is really nothing you can do to get the smoke taint out of a wine without stripping the soul out of it too.
Heading into 2021
While Blake was tending to the wines, I was hard at work on rebuilding our infrastructure for the 2021 season. We needed new water tanks, we had to rebuild a mile of deer fence line along with numerous gates, we had to repair and replace all of the melted irrigation pipes in the vineyard, rebuild retaining walls that burned away, and build a new entry fence to provide peace of mind. To rebuild all of that deer fence and to work on road repairs, we had to first remove hundreds of burned out trees that presented a major hazard. Needless to say, we now have enough firewood for a lifetime of Fireside Fridays! Our driveway also sustained major damage from the crushing weight of the endless parade of firetrucks, PG&E transmission line trucks (the really, really big ones), and tree service trucks which lasted for weeks after the fire. And the fire burned out all of our culverts, and many culvert retaining walls. Luckily the road didn’t collapse anywhere, but it was a major project to replace all of the culverts and to rebuild the road. And it took weeks for PG&E to rebuild the transmission line and get our power restored. And it was the same for the water system. I am happy to report that as of now, all systems are ready to go in time for Budbreak. We still have immense amounts of work to rebuild our storage buildings, but at least we have new vineyard tractors and equipment. Just this week Doug was mowing the vineyard with our new crawler and flail (he is starting to get the hang of it!) And so far, no deer have breached the new fence.
As I write this, the vineyard is just starting to sprout new growth. Leaves are rapidly unfurling in our Pinot Noir and Grenache blocks with the Syrah just barely starting to swell, and the Roussanne lagging further behind. The biggest question we face now is determining how much damage the vines sustained from the fires. The majority of the vineyard does not seem to be impacted by the fires, though fully about 25% was scorched such that all of the leaves fell off. Some of these scorched vines sprouted new growth after the fires, so we can assume those vines will be fine over the long run. It is likely the buds for this year’s growth have been damaged, so we might not see much fruit on those vines this year. But we are hopeful that in another year those vines should be recovered.
There are vines that were closest to the most intense part of the fires that have shown no signs of growth or swelling buds. This includes between one half and one acre of vines at the top of Rattlesnake Rock block. At this point, it is still too early to tell just how many we lost. Once we know, we can start replacing those vines. We did take a good amount of cuttings that we will root and have available to use for replants, but it may not be enough. Only time will tell. We plan on documenting the vineyard as it wakes up and recovers in our Instagram and Facebook feeds, so be sure to follow us. We are looking forward to getting back to making our estate wines this year and are hoping for an excellent come back vintage!
– Bradley Brown, Founder & Wine Director