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Larkfield’s Ancient Oak Cellars starts anew after Tubbs fire

Ken and Melissa Moholt-Siebert's Ancient Oak Cellars sits just west of Paradise Ridge Winery, near Cardinal Newman High School.

The 31-acre Larkfield property was right in the path of the deadly Tubbs fire as it raced down the hill toward the highway nearly two years ago. The Moholt-Sieberts lost everything in the blaze: their equipment; their home; a circa-1890 barn; and their estate vineyard. All 15 acres of grapes planted at their Siebert Ranch vineyard were incinerated. All that remained were the native trees.

The land had been in Ken Moholt-Siebert's family since the 1950s. The vineyard produced some of the family's most famous fruit - grapes that went into Ancient Oak's award-winning Siebert Ranch pinot noir, and grapes that were sold to Paradise Ridge, Hanzell Vineyards, Flowers Vineyards & Winery and La Crema Winery.

Now, the Moholt-Sieberts are replanting everything from scratch, including irrigation.

“We felt like we had full-time jobs before, and now we're navigating that - a rebuild and all the assorted paperwork,” said Melissa Moholt-Siebert, 53. “It's hard. It's overwhelming. And yet we still feel lucky to be here.”

Like most who were evacuated from the wildfires, the Moholt-Sieberts have harrowing stories about that unforgettable October night.

They didn't see the fire until it was at the top of the hill. The blaze on their property started with an ember and grew to a conflagration in a matter of minutes.

Ken Moholt-Siebert, 53, helped neighbors pack up and leave before he did his best to protect his own place.

“Once it went kaboom, it was a full force gale coming from the north. All we could do was get out,” said Moholt- Siebert, who wrote a poem earlier that night that described the scene - the wind whipping and the smell of smoke in the air.

Replanting the vineyard

After FEMA removed 180 truckloads of debris last March, the Moholt-Sieberts focused on replanting.

Breathing new life into a vineyard isn't something winegrowers do every day, and the duo behind Ancient Oak seized the opportunity to make changes.

The vineyard originally was planted with wide spacing - roughly 660 vines per acre; the new one will be significantly denser - somewhere between 1,200 to 1,500 vines per acre. The rows of vines that once faced a multitude of directions will run east to west.

The Moholt-Sieberts also added a small block of chardonnay; the old vineyard only had pinot noir. The couple and winemaker Greg La Follette settled on new vines, specifically chosen for each of the five blocks.

One thing that hasn't changed: The man behind the plantings.

Back in 1995, when Ken Moholt-Siebert's grandfather, Henry, first planted the vines, he turned to friend and Mark West winegrower Bob Dempel to do the job. Last year, when the Moholt-Sieberts set out in search of a strategy for replanting the vineyard, they turned to Dempel.

“I've certainly never had the opportunity to plant (a vineyard) for a grandfather and replant it for his grandchildren,” said 83-year-old Dempel, who also lost his home in the fire. “First time for everything, I guess.”

Replanting Siebert Ranch vineyard hasn't been easy, though. For starters, the property is hilly. Second, it comprises a vast variety of soil types.

The Moholt-Sieberts' crop insurance only covered the 2018 harvest. Capital resources have been scarce, and the couple has had to space out expenditures.

Federal disaster relief programs for farms provide partial reimbursements, but they don't kick in until farmers spend the cash.

“Every bit of money and time and energy we have is going into the vineyard first,” Melissa Moholt-Siebert said. “This is a place of Ken's heart. He came here every summer as a kid. The way we see it, we're going to do whatever we can to make sure we bring it back, and we'll worry about everything else after that.”

What lies ahead

Like its namesake valley oak that has lived on the property for 400 years, Ancient Oak Cellars has managed to survive the fire.

The winery makes and sells wines with grapes from other sites - a few blends and several vineyard-designates - online and in stores and restaurants around the region.

The Moholt-Sieberts have managed to keep overhead down during the rebuild, camping on the site and doing much of the manual labor themselves. The couple also has leaned on the help of Arnulfo Becerra, a vineyard worker who has tended the land with his relatives for decades.

Ken Moholt-Siebert said a ton of work has been done on the site. They've put in a mile of perimeter fence and a few thousand feet of culvert and underground pipes.

They've also started to replant some of the blocks.

All the new vines should be in by October. From there, the Moholt-Sieberts must wait. Most new vineyards take three years before they start producing decent fruit, which means Siebert Ranch likely won't directly contribute to wine until the 2023 vintage at the earliest.

Once the vines are growing, the couple will turn their attention to other projects on the land, such as new barns, equipment sheds, and, eventually, a house.

“We have a very long road ahead,” Ken Moholt-Siebert said. “Until then we're just taking one day at a time.”

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