- CYCLE OF LIFE Mustard flowers and cover crops grow between vines near Tubbs Lane, where fire scars still blacken the hills where the Tubbs fire started.
As spring comes to ground zero of the Tubbs fire, nearby winemakers count their blessings
For the winemakers near Tubbs Lane, the coming of spring is bittersweet.
While spring is more than a month away, the unseasonably warm weather seems to have left winter far behind. The sun beams down from azure skies, and white tree blossoms, green grass and yellow mustard flowers paint the landscape in bright swaths of color. The long run of warm weather has given way to early talk of bud break, the first green shoots on dormant grapevines.
Tubbs Lane is where the Tubbs fire got its name. But the deadly firestorm that started the night of Oct. 8 didn't actually begin here. The wind-whipped inferno started a little farther up Highway 128, near Bennett Lane. But for those who live and work near Tubbs Lane, it was ground zero.
Underneath the growing thicket of green on the hillsides that rise steeply from the valley floor are the black scars of the fire and the charred foundations of homes lost in the disaster. While green seems poised to overtake the black as the landscape heals, it will take those who lived through the fire longer to recover.
"It was bloody terrifying," says Rachel Gondouin, associate winemaker at Bennett Lane Winery, just around the corner from Tubbs Lane.
The tile-roofed winery survived the fire, but Gondouin says they had only harvested about 50 percent of their grapes when the disaster struck, and much of the crop was lost to smoke damage. But she's looking to the future.
"It's such a beautiful time of year right now, with all of the mustards growing—it gives us a sense of renewal into 2018," she says. "We are excited for the promise the new vintage will bring."
After riding over Mount St. Helena on his motorcycle from Lake County the morning of Oct. 8, Envy Winery winemaker Banton Kirkendall stayed on site to protect the winery and his fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon. Half the winery's crop was picked before the fire. The remainder does have a whiff of smoke taint, but Kirkendall says creative blending should take care of that.
A former firefighter, Kirkendall appreciates the role fire plays in California. "The forest needs to burn to regenerate," he says.
Kirkendall wonders if there will be two Napa Valley 2017 vintages, pre-fire and post-fire. "We will find out," he says.
For now, Kirkendall's watching the surrounding landscape change.
"All that green and black," he says. "It's pretty amazing.
Chateau Montelena is one of Tubbs Lane's most celebrated wineries. Its 1973 Chardonnay beat out 11 other French and California white wines at the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976. The winery was founded by businessman Alfred Tubbs in 1888, the man for whom the road is named. The Tubbs fire didn't damage the winery, but vineyard manager David Vella says 45 tons of grapes still on the vine were lost to smoke damage. The winery did not fare so well in 1964 when a wildfire destroyed the property's stately mansion and farm building.
"This was history almost repeating itself," Vella says.
Vella lives on the property and says if the winds had changed direction during the fire, the fate of the winery would have been very different. "It would have been ugly."
Every morning, Vella looks to the north at the fire-scarred hills and realizes how lucky he was. "It's a blessing," he says. "We feel very fortunate."
While the lack of rainfall has him worried, he takes some solace in the profusion of new growth t
"This is renewal to a certain extent," he says. "It's soothing to see all the green."