Twenty plus years and many worn-out vehicles make the case that house-calls in my line of work demands a healthy blend of stamina and stubbornness. I like to think I have seen my territory intimately, in every season and stage of growth.
My line of work requires that I know already or learn quickly where each of my clients is situated on the Wine Highway, a concept that links communities from the Guadalupe Valley in Mexico, to the Okanagon Valley in Canada. Occasionally I find myself on the Autopista Viña well south of the border in Chile and Argentina. In France, we call it the Rue du Vin, in Italy the Via Vino. When you cross over into South Africa, the road becomes Die Wynweg.
This marvelous matrix links ordinary folks like me to an extraordinary array of vineyards, wineries, caves, garages, basements, office parks, parking lots, sometimes just a GPS located truck by the side of a lonely road. The inhabitants of the Wine Highway are an unlikely mix of savants and crackpots, rebels, raconteurs and rascals. Vagabonds they are, popping up here and there, across Counties, Countries, Time zones, Hemispheres, relentlessly chasing grape perfection, wherever that leads.
Recently some familiar and quite lovely exits along the North Coast (California) Wine Highway were closed, barricaded by unsmiling troops with Humvees and high-capacity ammo. Wildfire was charring Wine Country from the inside out, and mass evacuations were ordered for the humans. The grapes had nowhere to run and were forced to shelter in place.
For the third time in as many years, the aftermath is jarring. Blackened husks of tree, wizened and wilted, vanished barns and buildings, decrepit remnants of cars, trucks and tractors. Sad, dilapidated vineyards bearing fruit no one has the heart to harvest. Swales blackened by flows of flame river.
Napa and Sonoma County in 2017, Lake and Sonoma County in 2018, Sonoma County again in 2019. The Kincade Fire raged from a single bungled, worn-away hook on a high power jumper to devour insidiously from the Geysers down through Alexander Valley, hopscotching the Chalk Hill drainage down and over Shiloh Ridge and channeling Maacama Creek into Knights Valley.
The wreckage is jarring, the ruined grapes clinging forlornly to row upon row of former perfection, days if not hours from Harvest, their liquid sunshine tainted by bilious smoke and char. This is a disaster, for people, for families, for farmers, for fish and nesting birds, for rabbits and raccoons.
Other stretches of the Wine Highway were not harmed this year, but along this reach, the early October holocaust is starting to sear the inhabitants with a siege mentality. Will every Harvest to come now feel like the last three? Is flaming disaster the new Harvest Normal? Elsewhere is unscathed, but here the damage is deep. Rebuilding, replanting, recovering all seem like way off in the distance. The roadblocks have fully reopened, but the Wine Highway hasn’t. Now is a great time to discover its low-ebb, off-balance charm, the vagabonds and raconteurs are coming out from their hiding places.