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Winemakers share hope, heartbreak from Kincade fire

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With the Kincade fire the largest in Sonoma County history, expect this year’s Thanksgiving feast to be filled with sentimental storytelling when bottlings are uncorked.

The stories likely will begin with the suspense of the firestorm and end with a love letter to Sonoma County, this agrarian cradle of wine. As Rumi put it: “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground. There are a thousand ways to go home again.”

When the firestorm roared through parts of Geyserville and Healdsburg on Oct. 27, Christine Hanna, president of Hanna Winery, said she heard from about five people that her namesake winery on Alexander Valley Road had burned down.

“It was a rampant rumor,” the winery president said. “The scariest part for me, when contemplating what was going on, was thinking I can probably handle it if my house burns down or the winery. But I’m not sure I have the bandwidth if both burn down.”

The winery, with its tile retaining walls, its metal railings and its clay tile roof, survived. A propane tank on the property burned, but it didn’t explode.

“The fire came to all four sides of the building,” Hanna said. “It’s really a miracle the building didn’t burn. We were extraordinarily lucky that the strike team worked so hard to save the building.”

Hanna’s Healdsburg home on the south side of Fitch Mountain also survived.

This Thanksgiving Hanna plans to uncork a bottle of the Berlucchi Franciacorta, a nonvintage Italian sparkler.

“I want to drink sparkling wine because we need to be festive,” Hanna said. “Berlucchi has been producing wine for about five generations and I connect to any multi-generational family. Sometimes it’s hard to get the next generation excited about the business, so I delight in any family that does that.”

A pioneering winery, Berlucchi was the first to produce a high-quality sparkling wine in Italy’s Franciacorta region in the early 1960s.

“If there’s a silver lining here,” Hanna said, “it’s that we get to teach our children that tragedy can happen to anyone. Insecurity can happen to anyone. We are all in this together, and we are responsible to others in our community.”

Hanna said the wildfires –– this year’s and those in 2017 –– made suffering palpable.

“Sometimes you have to feel it in your body before you know what other people are going through,” she said.

Despite her worries about firestorms, Hanna said Sonoma County will always be home.

“I love the diversity of agriculture here,” she said. “We’re ranchers, brewers, cheese makers and winemakers. We’re sort of the original makers.”

Just a mile up the road from Hanna on Highway 128 is Alexander Valley Vineyards, where the fire spared the buildings but devoured a legion of trees.

“The fires came very close,” said Katie Wetzel Murphy, family owner and partner. “We lost a huge amount of trees –– oak, bay and pine –– on the top of the ridge that backs into the Mayacamas Mountain range. It was pretty nerve-wracking and we have several neighbors who lost their homes.”

Wetzel Murphy worried that they would lose the historic buildings on the property.

They include the family home of Cyrus Alexander, a school house and an adobe building, all dating back to the 1840s.

“These buildings are not replaceable so it would have been a very difficult loss,” Wetzel Murphy said.

This Thanksgiving the wine ambassador plans to uncork a magnum of the Champagne Grande Reserve Vertus Fourny & Fils Brut Premier Cru.

“I was introduced to it last year through Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant,” Wetzel Murphy said. “It’s important to celebrate this year and be understanding of what other people are going through. We’re just so happy there were no deaths. The fire crews did an amazing job. They obviously put to use the lessons they learned in 2017.”

A 5-mile jaunt south from Alexander Valley Vineyards is Medlock Ames at Bell Mountain Ranch where the flames of the Kincade fire practically licked the winery.

“There were char marks 6 inches from the building,” said Ames Morison, winemaker and co-founder. “We could see that the fires had come up to the winery. We realized that people were fighting the fires right up to the last inch.”

Morison said he plans to open a bottling of the Sutro, 2018 Sauvignon Blanc produced by one of his neighbors on Chalk Hill Road. Alice Warnecke Sutro is a fifth-generation grower and the first in her family to produce wine from the family’s Warnecke Ranch.

“They’re good people and they care so much about their land,” Morison said.

As for the 340 acres at Bell Mountain Ranch, 55 acres are planted to vines –– cabernet and a host of other varietals.

“We’ve been farming this land for 22 years and we had looked at more than 100 properties in California before choosing it,” Morison said. “There was something about Sonoma County that really appealed to us. It’s a wonderful place to grow grapes and make wine.”

Morison is still partial to Sonoma County even though there are wildfire worries when winds kick up. He grew up on a farm in Virginia and he said he learned about resilience from his father, the late Nat Morison.

“Even in a disaster, I know there’s a cyclical aspect to nature and I know as bleak as things can look, we’ll get rain and in the spring it will be green again,” the winemaker said. “I’m looking forward to the recovery that will happen and I find peace in these natural rhythms.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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