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Wineries heed cautionary lessons after surviving Nuns fire

The castle didn't burn during the Nuns fire. The flames came close to the massive edifice near Kenwood that is both a regional landmark and the headquarters for Ledson Winery & Vineyards, but they stopped short. And that wasn't completely happenstance, said Steve Ledson, the winery's owner and winemaker.

“We kind of sensed the danger before the fires happened,” said Ledson, “and we'd already spent a lot of time clearing away brush and other fuels from around our buildings. And that paid off. The fire burned all around the property, but the castle survived.”

That's not to say Ledson's enterprises came through unscathed. Ledson also owns a large vineyard near the summit of the Mayacamas range on Cavedale Road, where the flames burned with even greater ferocity than the valley floor bisected by Highway 12.

“We have about 70 acres up there, mostly in cabernet,” said Ledson. “We lost about 6,000 vines near the edges of the vineyard, and about 90 percent of the remaining crop was destroyed. We had picked the night before the fire, and there was still a lot of fruit in the vineyard. We couldn't use it, though. It was completely tainted by the smoke.”

Brush-clearing helped

Ledson had employed the same brush-reduction strategy around the Cavedale vineyards that he used near the castle, and he feels those efforts minimized the damage. He had even bought a neighbor's property so he could remove vegetation to reduce fire risk, but the work hadn't been completed by the time the Nuns fire erupted.

“We had the necessary permits from Cal Fire and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, but the county came out and told us we needed an agricultural permit because they assumed we were going to plant vineyards,” Ledson said. “The truth is that we hadn't even decided whether to plant or not. But we had to stop work.”

Ledson thinks that delay came at a very high price.

“We were planning to clear brush around the house of our neighbor, Chad Rogers,” said Ledson, “but we couldn't get to it in time because we didn't have the permit. He didn't make it out. He died in that fire.”

Rogers, a 72-year-old Army veteran, lived on the Cavedale property for more than four decades. He died Oct. 12 in his house, where he remained after his wife evacuated.

Losses beyond damage

Along with the Cavedale losses, Ledson had to cope with smoke and wind damage on the castle grounds. A large event tent was torn to shreds, “and a lot of the trees, many of them more than 100 years old, lost limbs. It was really hard to see the damage to those beautiful old trees.”

But the most enduring impact from the fires was the loss of business.

“It was the public perception in the aftermath of the fires that really hurt us,” Ledson said. “Business was off for a year. It's finally picking up, however. June was our best month since we've been in business.”

Ledson has been highly proactive since the Nuns fire, diligently maintaining the defensible space he credits with saving the castle.

“We remove brush and grass from around our buildings and vineyards on a regular basis, and we're working with PG&E to put all our powerlines underground,” said Ledson. “We're also installing an 80,000 gallon water tank on our property, and we're getting a permit for another tank of the same size. It's for our neighbors as well as us. We had a tank and water trucks available (during the Nuns fire), and the firefighters were able to make good use of them.”

St. Francis networked

At nearby St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, president and CEO Rick Bonitati credits close local relationships with saving the winery and its wines during the Nuns fire.

“We were shut down for 10 days during the fires, but we did have limited access,” Bonitati said. “Our staff and managers were able to ensure that our property was protected, including wine fermenting in tanks. We had active support from everyone in the community, especially first responders. Our local fire departments and Cal Fire established a base camp at the winery, and really worked to protect us. We owe them a tremendous debt.”

Like Ledson, Bonitati believes fuel reduction efforts, including nearby hillside fuel breaks, contributed to a helped save the property.

“We were also protected by our vineyards,” said Bonitati. “A well-managed vineyard is one of the best ways to mitigate fire damage.”

Bonitati cites the winery's Behler Ranch vineyard as a case in point. Though fire burned all around the vineyard, the vines were largely untouched.

“Vines transpire moisture and help reduce heat transfer, and we keep our turnarounds and fence lines groomed and our rows disked, so there was no significant fuel for the fire,” Bonitati said.

Still, St. Francis is adjusting its strategy in preparation for future wildfires. That includes an upgraded technology system to facilitate communication among staffers.

“The safety of our employees is always paramount,” Bonitati said. “Everything else is secondary. First and foremost, we want to be able to reach everyone quickly and ensure they're in safe locations, as well as arrange necessary transportation or housing, or anything else they need.”

The winery is also coordinating with PG&E on fire-risk alerts and potential power shut-downs.

“We're also getting some new generators so we'll be able to maintain operations smoothly in case we lose power for extended periods,” Bonitati said.

Finally, the winery is conducting a comprehensive audit of all its properties to ensure brush clearance continues to create defensible space.

Events like the Nuns Fire are traumatic, Bonitati said, “but they also make you think about the ways you can respond better to natural disasters and other major challenges. We're taking it as an opportunity to improve our safety and security.”

Like virtually all the wineries in the Sonoma Valley, St. Francis took an economic hit from the fires. Tourism, a major profit center for the winery, essentially dried up, and stayed at low ebb for months.

“That said, the support we got from local people and the wine and hospitality industry at large was incredibly strong,” Bonitati said. “I traveled through the Midwest and along the East Coast after the fire, and everywhere I went I received tremendous support. It was constantly, ‘How can we help? We just want to buy wines from Sonoma and Napa. Tell us what we can do.' That response made a huge difference for our business, and I found it deeply moving on a personal level.”

Always preparing

In sum, Sonoma's wineries seem better prepared for the fire next time. But that doesn't mean there isn't substantial room for improvement, cautioned Ledson.

“When I'm driving around these days, I find myself looking at houses and buildings to see if there's decent defensible space,” Ledson said. “And it bothers me that I still see dry brush and grass right up against a lot of homes. We have to stop that. The fires can come back at any time.”

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