Sonoma County’s fire-damaged Paradise Ridge winery plans memorial to fire

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 this 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 most destructive 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.”

Byck recalled the surreal night his property caught fire, with flames raging 30 to 40 feet high.

He first noticed the smoky skies around midnight. Soon afterward, Byck’s production manager Tony Dimsho called and asked him if the winery was going to be safe.

“I was like ‘from what?’” Byck said. “Tony started talking about the fires and then multiple people started texting and calling.”

Byck said he was worried about the winery, but by 2 a.m. his immediate focus was on evacuating his injured wife and their three kids –– Alexia, then three, Byrcen, six, and Adianka, nine.

The media storm followed over the next couple of days with CNN, ABC, NBC, Bloomberg and others parachuting in for the glimpse of the destruction, requesting an interview with Byck.

“It was weird,” he said. “It felt a little unfair considering the devastation of my neighbors. For the most part I felt individuals suffered more personal loss than the winery.”

The pragmatic Byck saw the winery’s misfortune as something that could be fixed. He was greatly relieved that no employees were hurt, although he was concerned about those who lost their homes.

Byck said he may be an anomaly when it comes to calamity. All tragedies, he said, are measured by the one that was the most emotionally devastating to him –– losing his mother, Marijke, in 2006. She was walking down the road near her home and a car hit her unexpectedly.

“I don’t know if I was numb or in shock about the wildfires, but I just looked at this as burned buildings that we needed to clean up and start the rebuilding piece,” he said. As for the production side, Byck was greatly relieved that most of their 15 acres of vineyards were spared because vines can take five to seven years to come to fruition.

The winery was not as fortunate when it came to this year’s vintage, with 120 tons of harvested grapes inside the winery when it burned to the ground. The brand also lost aging wine in barrels from the 2016 vintage.

On the upside, the winery had five tons of grapes from the Rockpile appellation it harvested after the wildfires, and it’s now in production. It’s also considering buying juice to craft a Rockpile zinfndel and cabernet sauvingnon, as well as scouting for juice to produce a sauvignon blanc and a rosé.

“Our winemaker Dan Barwick is very particular about what we put in our bottles, which will probably make the search (take) a little longer,” Byck said. “We want to preserve the integrity of our brand.”

The community has been incredibly generous, donating and/or discounting everything from architectural services, to juice to glassware to labels, Byck said.

“It’s been very humbling, all the people who have reached out to our winery and our family,” he said. “It’s touching. It’s these things that get you more emotional than looking at a burnt winery. We are a tight-knit community.”

“Most of the art is intact,” Byck said. “Our vineyards are intact. Our hope is to rebuild and make the winery even better than it was. A lot of people come up here for the views. I think in a couple of years, it will feel normal.”

For now, an undisturbed pizza oven sits on the patio next to the charred visitors center covered in ash.

Byck laughed at the clash of images, the incongruity, the absurd paradox.

“We’ve got to look for little symbols of hope,” he said. “People talk about the LOVE sculpture as a sign of resilience, of survival. Love overcomes.”

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