Harvest season in Napa Valley always brings a fever of anticipation laced with anxiety about weather and timing, and, these last few years: wildfires.
The 2017 Atlas Fire burned over 20,800ha in Napa County and was among the most destructive in the state’s history. The Glass Fire repeated the misery in 2020, burning over 1,500 structures and 27,300ha across Napa and Sonoma.
Yet, despite the devastation, some of Napa’s worst-damaged wineries viewed the tragedy as an opportunity to start over with fresh thinking. Burgess Cellars, Newton Vineyard, Signorello Estate and Roy Estate suffered tremendous losses after the fires. Still, after several years of planning, rebuilding and replanting, most are now ready to receive guests.
‘We didn’t spend much time crying in our soup,’ said Carlton McCoy, master sommelier and managing partner of Lawrence Wine Estates. ‘You have to figure out how to move forward, and now, we are finally excited and ready to introduce people to this new, refreshed identity for our winery.’
Just days after the ink was dry on the purchase agreement for Roy Estate (between Shirley Roy and the new owners, Stephan Crétier and his wife, Stephany Maillery), a cinder from the Atlas Fire found its way into the chimney of the estate home, where Shirley Roy was still living.
That ember was enough to set things ablaze, ultimately burning down the entire home and melting two fire-resistant safes. Roy had to scale a fence to escape the fire’s wrath. This was not the new start everyone had planned, and it presented an entirely daunting set of decisions for the new owners.
The estate’s vineyards survived the onslaught of the fire. A good thing, too, because winemaking (under the direction of Philippe Melka) is limited to estate fruit only, so annual production is relatively small, generally below 1,500 cases. With the vineyards intact and nothing left but a charred scar where the buildings were, the new owners had to decide.
Rebuild? And if so, rebuild what exactly?
Estate director and general manager Bryan Zupon noted that rather than mourn what was lost, ‘we viewed this as an opportunity to experiment and reimagine.’ Many conversations later, the team conceived of the aptly named La Résidence. The family’s home, hospitality space, and a new tank room is a multi-functional, architecturally stunning building: a three-storey space with various tanks and vessels dedicated to winemaking experimentation and research.
Zupon adds that they manage future fire risk by using livestock to control potentially dangerous brush growth across the property, grazing cattle across fallow areas of the vineyard and bringing over 400 goats to the property to clear brush inaccessible by conventional means.
A state-of-the-art kitchen opens into a glass-walled dining room – the perfect setting to enjoy executive chef Tom Stafford’s cuisine. On the ground level, there are several more private tasting spaces and a terrace with an outdoor kitchen. This features an authentic parrilla wood-burning grill and a Milanese pizza oven.
Zupon compares the new visitor experience to being welcomed into the vintner’s home: ‘Our culinary experiences show us at our best. We want you to feel like you are in a home,’ he said.
Much like Roy Estate, the new proprietors of Burgess Cellars were just a few weeks into ownership when the Glass Fire broke out. Carlton McCoy explains: ‘Fire is interesting – comes through, does damage, and it’s gone – there is a silence afterwards.’
Like Signorello, Newton and Roy, McCoy found an opportunity in the silence, rebuilding with an eye towards the future and respect for the past.
McCoy remembers being excited about his first meal in a restaurant since the beginning of the pandemic when he heard that flames surrounded the winery. ‘At that point, I could do nothing except enjoy a glass of Champagne and see what we had in the morning,’ he said.
Fortunately, the vineyards surrounding the structures acted as a firebreak – which meant minimal vine damage. As he explained, McCoy and the team had to walk the property and assess the damage, seen and unseen.
‘The roots of large trees continue burning, and you have to inspect those. Ensure every root ball is snuffed out and that underground irrigation isn’t melted or potentially burning.’
Burgess lost the original 1800s winery building and a newer structure that served as barrel storage. All that remained of the historic building were stones – which now have a new life as part of the reimagined Burgess Hospitality space, scheduled to open early this summer.
McCoy noted that rebuilding was a lengthy process: ‘We knew this would not be a quick rebuild; we wanted to design something that would last for the long term.’
The new space is actually on the site of adjacent Luna Vineyards, which went up for sale after the fire.
The Burgess team saw the Luna sale as the break they needed, said McCoy. ‘It was in incredible shape, a lightly used facility, and we thought it was a great opportunity for us to make a new home for Burgess on our terms. What we ended up creating is something we would never have been able to do at the original property.’
The new space will offer multiple customer experiences. This includes immersion into the winery’s regenerative farming practices and tasting in a vintage speakeasy-styled room. The team was careful to pay homage to the history of the place and create functional hospitality spaces.
‘We also have a tower you’ll get to climb for a tasting experience and a nice view of Napa. We are excited to introduce people to this new, refreshed identity for Burgess,’ said McCoy.
Signorello Estate owner Ray Signorello was in Canada when his partner in Napa called to let him know there were flames at the back of the estate hillside. Later in the evening, the Atlas Fire progressed, and the structures were clearly in danger.
Winery crews tried to hose down the area and went inside to retrieve what precious things they could. Eventually, the estate crew, who stayed on to try and fight the fire, had to leave because there was nothing to be done; the fire was too hot and intense.
Signorello flew down from Canada the next day but could only access the property via CNN media credentials. Seeing that most of the damage was structural and that the vineyards had held up nicely against the flames, Ray decided then and there to rebuild.
Winemaker Priyanka French, who joined the team in 2019, remembers it as an exciting time, when they were ‘talking a lot about our philosophy and intention for the future’.
‘We conceived a bigger, grander version of what existed before, but planned and executed from a very responsible point of view. This was not just a flashy new building,’ she said.
The team evaluated how to build responsibly, efficiently and durably to avert future fire catastrophes. Nothing moves quickly in the wine world; the first permits were filed in 2018, and in 2021 they were approved, allowing Signorello to begin work excavating caves and creating an entirely new hospitality space.
The new winery is 100% solar-powered and incorporates non-flammable materials such as concrete, steel and glass. It features a dedicated fire pump, the water source of which has a universal fitting so any emergency agency can access it.
The estate installed double-sealed doors and vents have specialised filters to manage any smoke or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air. ‘We are taking no chances…this is not happening to us again,’ said French.
Signorello hopes to complete the harvest on-site at the winery this year, and the winery will be fully completed and open to visitors by the winter or spring of 2024. However, this summer guests can visit for a tour of the estate and a tasting at an interim tasting space that opened in June 2018.
Newton Vineyard, which suffered losses during the 2020 Glass Fire, was one of the few wineries to lose swathes of vineyard in the firestorm. Head of winemaking for Newton, Andrew Holve, had just completed the harvest night shift when the fire appeared on the other side of the valley.
‘It hadn’t jumped to our side, and when it did jump, I was in charge. It quickly changed from non-threatening to immediate evacuation. Even so, I didn’t expect that would be the last time I’d be at the winery,’ he said.
The bucolic nature of Newton, surrounded by forest, made it remarkably vulnerable, and the vineyards were wrapped in a ring of fire. Situated on approximately 215ha, with 30 or so under vine, the winery lost 24ha of vineyards, along with its signature gardens and all of the winery buildings.
‘After we recovered from the shock of it all, the support we got from everyone in Napa was amazing. And Newton’s leadership pledged commitment to our entire team. Even now, three years later, our team is still intact. No one was let go,’ added Holve.
The next order of business was to secure another winemaking facility and hospitality space. ‘The best option we found was another winery in Napa, Brasswood Cellars.’
‘They were constructing a custom crush facility, and we negotiated exclusive rights to their tasting room and winemaking through 2025,’ explains Holve. Now, Newton operates a by-appointment tasting room in Calistoga that boasts views of the Calistoga geyser. ‘It’s a brand new facility with all of the bells and whistles and all of the current technology, things we didn’t have at the old site,’ said Holve.
Back at the original winery, Newton continues to clear the site and develop new plans to get the vineyard and winery back up and running. It began replanting the estate’s steep terraced slopes in 2021 after digging 80 pits to examine soil and water holding capacity to make informed decisions about which varieties and rootstocks will go where.
‘We expect to plant about 10 acres (4ha) a year, so we look at five to six years for full restoration. We have to go slowly on replanting because we won’t have enough water to support 70 acres (28ha) of new vines all at once,’ said Holve. The long-term replanting plan also takes into consideration fire resilience and climate change.
Holve spares little time for nostalgia, as there is so much to do, but admits the devastation was ‘quite a shock at first’.
‘We lost the winery, our home, all of the Chardonnay vintage, all of the reds – so much of our hard work went up in flames. That was tough, but I now view it as an opportunity to build something fresh with new eyes.’