It’s hard to fathom, but the future of Paradise Ridge sits in a building that contains a card table, two bales of hay and Rene Byck’s imagination.
The building is almost all that remains after October’s firestorm ripped through one of Sonoma County’s most beloved and scenic wineries from its slopes near the leveled Fountaingrove neighborhood.
But the co-vintner of Paradise Ridge has a plan: convert the empty shell into a temporary tasting room, and then to create a permanent memorial to the fire by pooling charred artifacts, videos and timelines to chronicle the worst firestorm in California history. If anyone can make an artistic vision a reality it’s the Byck family, known for its patronage of the arts and the mecca it created for artists on its 155 acres in Santa Rosa overlooking the Russian River Valley.
Paradise Ridge was voted the Best Tasting Room in California by USA Today in 2016, reeling in romantics with its popular Wines and Sunsets event Wednesday evenings. Locals looked forward to its seasonal lineup of live music, food trucks, theater events, poetry readings and world-class art exhibitions, all with a view of the Russian River Valley. For the 1,000 couples who have held weddings on the site since 1994, it’s sacred ground. Byck understands the sentiment; he and his wife were married there a decade ago on New Year’s Eve, and it’s also where their kids routinely stomp grapes. Among the meandering trail of dozens of outdoor sculptures on the property, the most iconic for many is the “LOVE” sign with its two-story-high steel lettering by artist Laura Kimpton of Fairfax. A photograph of the surviving sculpture, surrounded by smoke, has become a popular beacon of hope on social media. Byck says two brides already have expressed interest in getting married in front of the sculpture in 2018.
Kate Eilertsen, guest curator with the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation that has worked on the winery’s sculpture exhibits for the past five years, said the winery had been a beloved landmark in Sonoma County because it succeeded in engaging art-lovers, wine-lovers and nature lovers alike.
“Paradise Ridge puts the art in a beautiful setting that allows the art to be seen and treasured as it should be seen,” Eilertsen said. “The diversity of art, from Burning Man masterpieces to the highest quality of modern and contemporary art can be enjoyed in the middle of the most lovely, natural setting.”
That appreciation for art as a powerful medium is what’s driving Byck to capture the essence of the wildfires in an exhibit in the 700 square-foot building that somehow survived the fire.
“We want to help people know the enormity of what happened, to show people how fast the fire was moving,” Byck said. “That’s when I get emotional, with neighbors saving neighbors, people not even knowing each other, banging on doors. There are a lot of unknown, unsung heroes. These are the stories we’d like to tell in our exhibit.”
The building is expected to open by the summer of 2018, and it will double as the winery’s temporary tasting room until the new visitors center opens the following summer.
“We’ll have to bring in heat, the Internet and plumbing,” Byck said. “But when we open this building, it will be a symbol to the country, the state and the county that the fire is behind us. It’s our unfortunate claim to fame, but we feel people are interested in what we’re doing.”