The 2017 Fires
Everyone who lives in Napa or Sonoma has a 2017 fire story, and Realm does too. For a while we didn’t know whether we wanted to say anything about it. It was an intense chapter, but a brief one. And a lot of people had it much, much worse than we did. There was so much tragedy, a lot of devastation, and a number of heroes. We don’t count ourselves among the heroes – no way – but we do have a story.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
It was around 9:30 or so. Scott had taken his wife to the airport for a red-eye flight to the east coast, and Benoit had finished dinner with a friend. They both started getting texts, friends telling them to check out the eastern hills of Napa.
Scott: “I went outside and I could see orange but I couldn’t see exactly what it was. I got another text message saying there’s a fire and it looks pretty serious. So I got in the car and drove to the winery. I didn’t take anything with me, I just started driving. As soon as I got to the Silverado Trail where it meets Hagen I knew it was really bad. There were people fleeing and I could see the panic on their faces; it was pandemonium. So I kept driving and as I got further north on the Trail where Soda Canyon is, that was when I knew it was dangerous. There were cars streaming out of there.”
Benoit: “My friend said there was a fire in Yountville. I brushed my teeth and said I gotta go. I took my car and drove and started taking pictures. Right around Shafer I knew it was serious. It was super windy, the wind was blasting the hillside. I could hear propane tanks exploding.”
Scott got to the winery and within a couple of minutes Benoit showed up. They looked at each other, and though they hadn’t texted, it was like, ‘well, of course you’re here.’ They walked up the hill behind the barn to get a view of the eastern hills. They could see the fire down in Soda Canyon and it was spreading very quickly. The wind was so intense. Within that first hour they knew it wasn’t going to be an ordinary situation. They also knew they were going to stay.
They rummaged around to find a couple of hoses and started to hose down the buildings. Periodically they’d take the ATVs and go up to the top of Wappo Hill where they had a 360-degree view of the valley. By then there were dozens of texts flying around. At around midnight the police came by; they were going door to door.
Scott: “Benoit wanted to hide in the winery because he was afraid they were going to force him to leave. They got through the first gate and they were searching around in the old house over here and they were trying to go up to the top. I said ‘Benoit, we’ve gotta tell those guys we’re here. I don’t want them wasting their time searching a house since we know there’s no one up top. (The Hartwells, who live at the top of the hill, were not in town.) So I went down and saw the officer and he said ‘Mandatory evacuation, you have to go.’ I said ‘Thanks so much, we appreciate that but we’re going to stay.’ He said ‘That’s a bad idea.’ I said ‘I understand.’ He asked how many of us were here, and I told him two. He said ‘Ok I’m going to mark you down out front with a piece of chalk, I hope we don’t have to come and get you.’ I said ‘I hope not too.’”
Benoit: “When the cops came the first night, I said there’s no way I’m going to talk to them. You talk to them, Scott, because they’re going to make me leave. And I’ve got to stay here. Because I know the crucial things that need to happen with the wine. I don’t know what Scott said but he talked his way out of it.”
The policeman went on to the next driveway. By that point it was clear to Scott and Benoit that the fire had moved all the way up the hillside across the Silverado Trail. Around 1am, as far as they could see to the south and the north, everything was on fire.
Scott: “The entire thing was on fire. It was just one big canvas of orange. It was horrible. But it was also awe-inspiring. The force of nature. I’ve lived through a few natural events, but this was the biggest. Where you can feel the power of Mother Nature and how insignificant we are. You realize it’s well beyond anything mankind can control.”
Scott and Benoit stayed up all night, and somewhere in the course of the evening they lost power. Luckily they had not one but two generators, one for the winery and one for the office. They shut down the night fans in the winery so the smoke couldn’t get in.
Benoit: “We did a lot of brainstorming. We had to go on Dropbox where there was a guide on how to use the generator. But you cannot panic. You have to see what you can do.”
Scott: “Because we had generators we also had Wi-Fi. Through the entire duration of the fire we had great communication. We started to look at this like our little beacon on the hill. This was our command post. And because of our elevated location we had great visibility.”
It was harvest, so there was a little food in the freezer, mostly Hot Pockets. And there were a few extra clothes lying around. After a few hours Scott and Benoit knew they’d be there for the long haul. The roads were shut down. The police weren’t letting people in or out. Although Scott and Benoit felt fairly secure, the disinformation that was spread around that night was crazy.
Scott: “People were saying we had to get out of here. Everyone was freaking out. They were saying that Darioush burned down, Regusci burned down, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars burned down. But I could see that no, I can see those wineries, they’re still here. The rumors didn’t help anyone. We just tried to keep our heads cool.”
Benoit: “Crane, To Kalon and Houyi were all in the winery. These are big assets, we had to take care of them. This is the type of night you show up and you stay there.”
“In a situation like this you have two types of people, those who panic, who can’t think and make things even more dangerous. Or the people who slow down, regulate their breathing, and make a plan.”
Monday, October 9
Around 4 am Scott and Benoit traded off naps on the couch in the upstairs office, one sleeping for an hour while the other was on fire watch. By morning they’d heard from everyone at Realm and knew they were okay, though a few employees had houses that were in danger and had to evacuate. (Later they found out that one did burn down.) But everyone was safe.
Since there was nothing they could do about the fire, Scott and Benoit came up with a game plan for the wine.
Scott: “We were there so we said ‘let’s make wine.’ And I told Benoit ‘I’m going to be your harvest intern, but you can’t get too mad at me and you can’t fire me because I’m all you’ve got.’ I asked him to tell me what to do, and for the next few days he and I did all the punch downs, pumpovers and racking that needed to happen. No one else came in until Wednesday.”
Benoit: “We had to do all the additions, all the pumpovers. Scott was helping me tremendously. Usually we have a crew of six interns, four permanent people plus me, 11 people. But we had a lot of quality wine in the tank so Scott and I worked nonstop. The adrenaline kicked in so we had some extra power.”
But the fire was still going, and Scott kept getting calls from friends questioning their judgement.
Scott: “I walked everyone through the analysis. We have a 360-degree view. We own the high ground. We have several million gallons worth of water in the reservoir. We have power and communications. I have access to the County’s fire command post, not just the maps they were posting online, but cell phone pictures of the fires they were texting to me. I talked to one of the County Supervisors and said listen, you tell me if we’re ever in danger. I’m not trying to do something stupid, but at the same time I’m not going to run away and leave several million dollars’ worth of wine in the tank.”
Scott and Benoit worked on the wine all day Monday, but their food supplies were getting low. They made do with the frozen Hot Pockets and a few eggs. They set up a makeshift shower in the crush pad with a hose. Some of the Realm team – Eden and MJ and a couple of the interns – were trying to get to the winery to bring supplies, but they were blocked by the police who said the road was closed.
Benoit: “We kept taking the ATVs to the top, watching the play-by-play to the east and then to the west. The smoke would settle, so at certain times we were above it. But at certain times it was smoky. We had pretty good visibility overall though.”
Tuesday, October 10
Scott: “On Tuesday a guy comes rolling by on a bicycle and it’s one of our neighbors. His house was on the Yountville Crossroad just in front of the police blockade, but he rode his bike through a vineyard to come see us. So we figured ‘aha, there’s a little pathway.’ So we orchestrated a plan to get some supplies. I felt my old military training kicking in. He was my spy and we gave him a two-way radio because his cell phone wasn’t working. And we coordinated with MJ and Eden to get some supplies. But when we rode the ATV down through his property to get the supplies a cop came out and threatened to arrest us for trespassing. We told her we had permission from our neighbor, but she made a big deal out of it. But we got the supplies through.”
Wednesday, October 11
Eden: “There was no way I could sit at home, just sit this out. The officers watched us gather - MJ, me, Scott and Benoit - at sunrise on Wednesday. We condensed supplies, packed some on the ATVs then we drove our vehicles through the vineyard. We didn’t make eye contact. You could tell they were pissed, but they didn’t stop us. We dropped off the food and MJ left to take juice samples to ETS.”
On Wednesday afternoon one of the interns just showed up. Alberto walked into the winery, by himself. He says “Guys I’m here.” Benoit and Scott were like, “How did you get here?” “I got a police escort. I told the policeman I wanted to come to the winery and he said wait a little bit and then he got me through.”
Scott: “It was amazing. This intern from Italy showed up and told us he knew we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t safe. ‘I just told the policeman I needed to go to the winery and he escorted me here. I want to make wine!’”
Eden: “I got gasoline and diesel and got back up here by 6pm on Wednesday. Scott said I needed to calm down, and I said ‘I’ll make dinner!’ We had steak and sausages. Once I got up here I realized why they were so calm and collected. It was a very different vibe up here. You could see everything from the top. It was harder being in town because everyone had a different story. It was like the apocalypse down there.”
Benoit: “On Day 3 an intern arrived and we started to smuggle in some underwear and some food. We were cruising the vineyards on the ATVs. It was unreal, but it became fun. It was like when you were young and you were camping, you have frozen food and you’re wearing the same clothes and it’s just you and nature. You might as well do it in a good spirit.”
Thursday, October 12
On Thursday morning more employees got through and came to the winery. MJ and Eden were there with a couple of other interns. The crew even received fruit that day, with Andy Beckstoffer working all his angles to get the fruit picked and delivered to the winery.
Scott: “Benoit and I felt we had some reinforcements. And then on Friday they opened the Silverado Trail. I went home on Friday for the first time to shower.”
Scott: “People’s true personalities and traits are exacerbated during times like that. You see the best and you see the very worst. In Benoit’s case, I saw the best. When push came to shove, I knew he was going to be here, and I love that about the guy. He’s crazy, he’s emotional, he’s unpredictable in so many respects, but when the entire hillside is on fire he shows up at the winery.
It wouldn’t have been the same if it was just me here, or just him here. It felt like the last stand. The odds are against us, but here we go. Benoit would have stayed until the bitter end. I was trying to be more calculating. There was a balance between the two. We took some risks, but we tried to take calculated risks.
So much had happened in the last five years, it was almost like we were back to 2012 fighting for our survival. Not literally - and I don’t want to make light of it because some people did lose their lives and a lot of people lost their homes. But we as a business had to fight again. And we made some decisions and applied some energy that I think is vintage ‘Realm.’ We were willing to go the extra mile. There was nothing that was going to get in the way of us making the best wines we could.”
Benoit: “Dramatic situation brings people together, there’s a sense of unity. If someone had asked me who would show up if we had a fire, I’d have said Scott and Eden. It’s in their DNA. If there was another catastrophe, it’s the same people who would step up, and there are some people who would freak out. It’s like a fight in a bar, you gotta know who is going to be with you. You learn those things fast. There was a joy in being there.”