Recovery from wildfires an ongoing process
By Sam Jones
October 2017 and the fall of 2020 may now seem like a smoky memory, but for those who lost their wineries, tasting rooms and vineyards, the recovery and rebuilding process is ongoing.
Some are starting from square one, while others are focused on increasing their property’s resilience against wildfire by building defensible space and using fireproof materials.
One such winery that is deep in the recovery process is the Signorello Estate, located off Silverado Trail in Napa. After the 2017 Atlas Peak Fire ravaged Ray Signorello’s family winery, he decided he wouldn’t just rebuild – he was going to reimagine the whole operation. Now, nearly five years later, Signorello’s vision is finally nearing, with construction fully underway at the estate.
“It’s been kind of a rough ride lately,” he said. “But, I guess the good news is that we lost the winery in 2017 and almost immediately embarked on a rebuild project. We went through the permit process, which took some time, and now we’re in the building phase and we’re hoping to have it wrapped up next summer.”
Signorello said the permitting process took much longer than initially anticipated, and COVID naturally slowed things down, but as of now, everything is on-track and going as planned. The build includes a reimagined winery, caves and hospitality center, and the layout is completely different from its previous iteration, so he is excited to see how this boosts functionality for everyday tasks as a winemaker.
In working with a team of architects to come up with the new design, Signorello was able to build back better by using fire-resistant materials like concrete and steel, designing the structures into the hill, and increasing the underground square footage, while also modernizing its aesthetic and internal workings.
“We’ve been making wine for a long time – 37 vintages – and we had a facility that was built in the 80s,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that have changed since then, and there are a lot of things we’ve learned, so we’re excited to incorporate all of our know-how in this new build and have something that will really perform well for us in all areas, from production and operationally, to storage and the caves and the hospitality piece to it.”
Similarly, Signorello also has been installing some mitigating measures if fire were ever to come close again. They have installed more water storage on the property, as well as fire pumps and perimeter extinguisher systems.
“We’re going the extra mile,” said Signorello. “So, we feel pretty good about resisting it if we had something similar to fire in the last go around.”
Upvalley in Deer Park, Viader Vineyards and Winery was also ripped up by fire, with the 2017 fire coming close, but the 2020 the LNU Lightning Complex Fires causing real damage. Vines were lost, as well as the on-property home, so now Alan Viader is doing the prep and clean-up work necessary to move forward and get back to primarily making wine.
“I’ve done phase one, removing the widowmakers and the trees that are already dead and precariously hanging in areas where my mom and I walk around, [and] she’s now replanting with olive trees and cypress trying to reimagine the area,” said Viader. “I had a whole carbon farm plan done, our annual farming was taking like 65 cars off the road every year, and I was good with that as my starting point.”
“But then, fire came in and took out all my trees – everything that I had planted and established.”
As a result, Viader has been reevaluating and prioritizing the projects that have the largest climate and environmental impacts, and also took a more drastic approach to protecting his family, property and community. In 2021, Viader became a volunteer firefighter.
Trained through the county’s volunteer firefighter academy, Viader now splits his time between his winery duties and responding to public safety calls from community members. Sometimes that means assisting with medical concerns, and sometimes it means helping with community projects. Regardless, Viader is happy to do whatever he can to lend a hand … or hose.
“The training was intense,” he said. “It’s a lot of gear, you have to be in really good shape, and I thought I was in decent shape … I was not.”
“[But] it’s all a matter of just repetitive and doing it and getting muscle memory. You do a lot more than just fighting fires.”
So even though he isn’t off blasting fires on a daily basis, he is ready to step up at the drop of the hat whenever someone needs help within his jurisdiction.
“It’s constantly going to do what you can, and it’s not required to go all over to all of the calls, but you don’t sign up unless you’re committed,” he said.
And at that, Viader’s pager buzzed, he glanced at its screen – “It’s a medical near here,” – and politely excused himself. Duty calls.