How We Brushed Off the Ashes

By Mark Blanchard / November 17, 2017

I woke up to the sounds of heavy winds pounding against my bedroom window.  I woke up to a cell phone with no service, yet dozens of missed calls and texts from my wife, still at the hospital where she works midnight shifts as a nurse.  The messages simply read, “Are you OK!?” I woke up confused and alarmed, not knowing that I was about to face one of the most harrowing weeks of my life. Because I woke up that morning to realize, my county was on fire.

By now you all know the stories from the news, from social media, maybe even from personal friends or family members affected.  What I’m about to tell you isn’t the story of the North Bay fires that devastated tens of thousands of acres of land, thousands of homes and businesses, and led to dozens of lost lives.  You’ve heard that story and seen those pictures.  And I am one of the lucky ones in that story, as my home, and my family and our winery survived through the tragedy.  This is a story about my business, my friends and my community.  We are Blanchard Family Wines after all, so this is a story about wine making.

September of this year was one of the most stressful months in the winery. This 2017 harvest we crushed more grapes than ever before.  We were already in the midst of working 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week, when the month of October began. How could we have ever predicted that my stress, so quickly, would turn to fear?  Late Sunday night, on October 8th, multiple fires erupted in the North Bay, creating a path of destruction and ruin that would become the greatest natural disaster this area has ever seen.  The reality of the situation for myself, like most of us in Wine Country, sunk in Monday morning as we woke to the news.

In a state of panic, I started to pack up belongings, irreplaceable photos, and important documents, not knowing how close the fires were, how fast they were spreading.  Phones were down, internet and TV was spotty, and no one knew exactly what was going on. I loaded my dog into my truck and headed to the same place I would have if it was a normal morning.  I went to the winery.  After all, we were still in the middle of crush season, with over 10 tons of fermenting grapes filling our production facility.

However, wine was far from my priority.  My wife was.   Kalle works 12 hour shifts from 7pm to 7am at a hospital in Santa Rosa, in labor and delivery.  She was in the middle of the madness that night, fires spreading in neighborhoods all around her. While most of us around here slept through the birth of the fires, she was witnessing them develop first hand. Two out of the three hospitals in Santa Rosa had already evacuated, and her hospital remained the only one open.  At 9am, I still had not been in contact with her and paranoia settled in.  I raced to find a landline from a winery neighbor and hastily called her.  She answered in tears, her voice trembling, as she was leaving her hospital, fleeing in her car through back roads.  Ash was falling like snow around her, smoke swirling in the air, and visible fires were closer than comfort.  And the worst part, she wasn’t coming home.  The fires had cut off access to our town of Healdsburg and she was forced to go south to a friend’s house.  She would merely take a brief nap before heading back to work again. And I would not finally see her for another 24 hours.

Over the next few days my wife continued to work at the hospital, doing her part to help others.  I would keep our bags packed, truck loaded, waiting for word it was our time to evacuate.  But I would also go to work.  Even though my safety was the largest concern, there was still wine to tend to. As wines go through fermentation, there is daily care that is required.  And after all, the winery may not be my whole life, but it is my whole livelihood.  And to make things more challenging, harvest wasn’t even done yet. We still had 12 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon hanging on the vine, ready to be picked.

Never have we spent more time checking Facebook updates, looking for messages, and watching the news.  This was not out of curiosity, it was out of safety.  Word started spreading through different resources about this friend whose house burned down, or this friend’s winery that was destroyed.  We spent days under the strange glow of a haunting red sun.  We wore masks when we went outside, if we went outside, just to breathe through the thick grey smoke.  We brushed off ash from our shoulders, as it spread a thin layer over our entire world.  We heard the constant ringing of sirens in the background, the hum of helicopters and planes over head, as if we were in some surreal war zone.  We tried to sleep, but feared that a fire fighter would be knocking on our door in the night if we did.  We prayed, we cried, and we waited.

As that Friday came upon us, day six of the fires, my winemaker Jene and I had an important decision to make.  It was crucial that we harvested our Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, before it was too late.  But the question remained, would it even be possible?  We spent that morning delivering half ton picking bins to the vineyard, meeting with the ranch owner, discussing the possibilities.  We could see the clouds of smoke just over the mountains that served as the backdrop to the fields.  We knew those fires could turn quickly with a shift of wind and come racing down those hills into the vineyard.  We all agreed, that if the fires remained a safe distance, then we would proceed with harvest the next morning.

That day my wife was home safe with me.  We were together and I knew nothing else would matter as much as that.  Which is why when the winds kicked up again, when the smoke thickened in the air, and when news spread that the fires were a mere 10 miles north of us, we evacuated.  We were lucky enough to find a room at a hotel about 20 miles closer to the coast.  My wife was in desperate need of rest, after working close to 75 hours at that point in the week.  The next morning we woke to good news.  The fires had not spread to the town of Healdsburg and our vineyard source for our Cabernet Sauvignon had not been damaged.  Harvest would proceed after all.

That Saturday morning, before we headed back to the winery, we had breakfast at our hotel.  Reality set in, in a tragic way, as most of the other patrons there had lost their homes to the fires.  Most had lost everything.  And here I was, going back to my home, back to my winery.  And to do what?  Make wine.  It seemed selfish, it seemed futile, almost ridiculous.  I felt what can only be described as survivor’s guilt.  An older gentlemen sitting next to me, who had lost everything but the pajamas he was wearing as he fled his burning house spoke with me.  He told me, “Don’t feel guilty.  You go back to your winery today and you make wine. It’s important.”  Although it sure didn’t feel that way to me at the time.

I met our winemaker Jene at the winery early, awaiting the delivery of what would be the single biggest crush day in the history of our winery.  Now it might not be much to most big wineries around here, but 12 tons was more grapes than we had ever processed in our facility in one day.  We started to text friends to see who was around, who was willing to help.  We weren’t sure if anyone was in town, as the streets remained desolate.  But as that large truck hauling over 20,000 pounds of grapes pulled into our parking lot, something else happened.  Friends started showing up ready to assist, smiles on their faces.  Hints of blue sky started to show through the clouds of grey smoke.  And so we cranked up the music and we got to work.

We sent some friends into town, instructing them to find any wandering tourists and invite them to the winery.  Few, if any other businesses remained open in town.  Another friend that does catering, showed up started making lunches for everyone.  And then all of sudden, for the first time in a week, we had a crowded winery. It was if we had come back to life.  Dozens of friends and visitors seem to appear out of nowhere.  Tourists were enjoying glasses of wine in our tasting room, friends were hand sorting grapes in the production area, and for a brief moment our thoughts found a different place to dwell.  We weren’t looking to our phones for evacuation notices, we weren’t checking the news, and we weren’t scared.

A good friend there hadn’t seen her firefighter husband in days.  But for an hour or two, she conversed with friends, ate good food, drunk great wine. Maybe she needed an afternoon like that.  I know I did. It was as if we had inadvertently created our own community moment.  We weren’t doing anything heroic.  It’s not like we were hosting evacuees or first responders.  We were just simply making wine that day.  And in a sort of epiphany, it dawned on me that the gentleman from breakfast was right.  It felt important.  We were getting back on our feet. We were coming together as a neighborhood.  We were saying in our own little way, “You did not get the best of us fire. You did not defeat us.”

Over that week and the coming weeks we have seen the best of humanity shine through in our community.  We have seen an outpouring of support, donations and love.  But we have also seen a huge loss in business and tourism.  And for a town like Healdsburg, our economy is largely based upon tourism and wine sales.  So now we battle back from the tragedy and face the aftermath.  Now making wine does seem important, maybe more important than ever.  That Saturday we had the most memorable day at our winery since we opened.  We will never forget the feeling of joy and relief that’s we had.  We will never forget the feeling of gratitude we had for friends and family.  We made wine that day because harvest wasn’t done yet.  And we will pick up the pieces of our lives, because you know what?  We aren’t done yet either.  Our county, our community and our industry is far from done.  We will rebuild.  We will overcome.  We will brush off the ashes and we will rise back.  And at Blanchard Family Wines, we will keep making wine. And we invite you to come and enjoy it with us.