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Saving Venge Vineyards, in the owner’s own words and photos

The Glass Fire in Northern Napa and Sonoma Valleys is contained now and headed for the record books — even as Red Flag Fire Warnings are currently extended because of possible new dangers from low humidity and new Diablo winds — hot, dry,  how howling gusts out of the Northeast sometimes topping 90 mph at the higher elevations.

On September 27, those same conditions took a spark from somewhere east of St. Helena (origin still unknown) and turned it into what became a 67,000+ acre fire.

The fire started early and spread quickly.

Fire response was quicky overwhelmed and ultimately 31 wineries, restaurants, and lodges, including California’s oldest resort were damaged or destroyed.

One of the wineries in the fire’s bullseye was Venge Vineyards, owned by my friend Kirk Venge.  I knew Kirk would be overwhelmed, so on Sunday I emailed a top staffer at Croix Estate — a western Sonoma County winery that Kirk also owns. The reply came back quickly that the winery was safe…for the time being.

That changed rapidly.

Below, Kirk’s story in a few emails to me, and the photos he took. Also, excerpts below the photos from two excellent online articles.

Photos by Kirk Venge

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Emails

Sept 29

Things got really, really hot here at the winery. Two homes on the driveway are destroyed. Not an spec of grass anywhere, only black. We had 200 ft. flames behind the winery and they ran right up to the property line just 20 feet from the building. All was spared.. Thankfully!! Others were not so fortunate and my heart goes out to them.

Sept 29

We’ve got more than smoke taint in grapes. BBQ smelling winery! It’s still like Weber Mesquite!

Oct 5:

Had to blaze through the vineyard Lew!!! That little baby [Land Rover] will pull anything and go anywhere!! I want to get a winch for it! Indeed it was! I singed my eyebrows from that 400 yd. spot!

Oct 8: Hope you are getting the BBQ odor out of the winery —

Here is what I got from the evening. Things got hot!!

Wine Spectator, October 2

“‘I arrived around 4:30 [on Sept. 28] after a very sleepless night and looked south from my home on Tubbs Lane. The glow [of the flames] was quite close and I felt I better get in the truck to have a look.” By the time he weaved through neighbors’ vineyards to get to his winery, fire was all around the property.

“‘I met up with a fire chief scouting in an SUV on the crush pad and he gave me the 100 percent loss talk and to get the hell out of there immediately,” he said. “I started saying prayers and goodbyes and drove off through the vineyard while wind pushed the fire in a dance that engulfed the mountain. The hillside and clusters of trees exploded. Ember showers easily flew to where I was and I could see spot fires around the structures here and there’.

“When things settled down enough that he felt safe, Venge moved back to his winery, deployed hoses and started spraying out spot fires. Two trucks of firefighters eventually joined him. After an hour, the flames had moved on.

“Between the flames in the vineyards and the smoke blanketing the region, he’s not hopeful for harvest. ‘If it’s not harvested yet it’s going to be dicey,’ he said. ‘I’m really thinking about calling it quits for the rest of the harvest. I like to be optimistic, but this is not the time. It’s time to be realistic’.”

 

Robb Report, October 5

“At 5:00 am last Monday, with harvest in full swing in Napa Valley, Kirk Venge pointed his Land Rover through a maze of vineyard tracks and the dry Simon Creek to get to his winery south of Calistoga. Not his usual route, but the main driveway was on fire. Flames were consuming the hills above as well. “I have old vines and wide spacing,” he says, “so I took the LR4 right on through the vineyard.” But the fire chief waiting on his crush pad told him, “It’s 100 percent sure this will flare up, and you should go.”

“Venge, proprietor of Venge Vineyards and consulting winemaker for some two dozen other producers, “ripped back through the vineyard,” as he describes it, to a safer distance about 400 yards away. And he watched. “The fire freaking exploded behind the winery, and ran to the east and south sides of it. I held my breath.” With embers falling around him, Venge says, he “waited the 5 or 10 minutes it took for the stand of trees behind the winery to create a white-hot curtain 200 feet tall, ready for everything to go. I was saying goodbye to my winery—everything in the world to an owner and vintner.”

“But the black color he expected to join the white, indicating that the structure was involved, didn’t materialize. “Holy shit,” he thought, “we’re still standing! If I can open the winery, pull hoses out, and start spraying like hell, we have a chance.” And with the help of a small band of firefighters, they did just that, and won.

“Venge’s visceral fight was repeated by too many others through the week, as the Glass Fire, which started on the east side of the valley, threw sparks to the west and ignited two more major blazes, eventually merging into a complex spanning northern Napa Valley and running across the border with Sonoma County toward Santa Rosa.”