by Laura Ness
When disaster strikes, you do what comes naturally. And when you’ve been around as a viable business since 1861, there’s some deep-rooted innate corporate wisdom that rises to the fore, ready to fight on to face another day. That’s what legends are made of. The oldest winery in Napa, Charles Krug Winery, has been through two World Wars, Prohibition, family feuds, the vagaries of consumer preferences, countless boom and bust cycles in the wine industry, and most recently and most devastating, the recurrence of ravaging wildfires.
The latest threat, the Glass Fire, which includes the Boysen and Shady Fires, broke out in Napa and Sonoma counties on Sunday, September 27, has thus far burned over 64K acres, evacuated more than 36K people, and destroyed at least 487 homes and 316 commercial structures in Napa and Sonoma counties. It was just 24% contained as of press time.
Always ready to draw on the company’s pioneering spirit and heritage of innovation, when it was determined that they were in a safe place, Charles Krug executives decided to reach out to PG&E to offer some fallow land on their property as a staging area for the utility to build a command center in the middle of the action.
The utility wasted no time jumping on the opportunity, and quickly cleared the land to make ready for the installation of a base camp from which they can assist in the firefight. Between 300 and 400 personnel will be working with firefighters to assess damage to power lines, turn off gas or repair lines as needed, and help move damaged lines or equipment. It is anticipated that the camp will also be used to conduct investigative work into what ignited the fires. The basecamp will likely be operational for 3 to 4 weeks.
In a conversation Saturday, October 2, Judd Wallenbrock, CEO of C. Mondavi & Family (parent company to Charles Krug) and Jeff Richardson, C. Mondavi COO, told us that their first priority was to ensure that all 114 Mondavi employees, of whom 30 are remote sales people, were safe and accounted for. Although some of the local tasting room and winery staff, had been evacuated from their homes in Angwin and Calistoga, none, thankfully, had lost homes.
Says Wallenbrock, who joined the C. Mondavi team in 2017 with a brilliant 35-plus year resume that includes De Loach Vineyards, Jessup Cellars, Michel-Schlumberger and Robert Mondavi, “We had an executive team meeting on Tuesday and asked ‘What can we do to help the community?’ We have 150 acres that backs up to Deer Park Road. We were safer than our neighbors being here on the valley floor. We’re the last property in St. Helena proper. It’s an ideal spot for a basecamp.”
They did have to ask their neighbors at the CIA if they’d be ok with giving up some of their garden space on the fallow land.
COO Richardson reached out to PG&E on Tuesday afternoon, and the call was quickly returned. “We had a signed agreement by 5pm Wednesday. Basically, PG&E needed to indemnify us from all potential harm, with all the equipment and people that would be working on site. By 10am Thursday, they had cleared the land, and literally transformed the field overnight. It was all graded and ready the next day. About 100 people came in, set up tents for food service, worked on striping the park lots. It was impressive!”
Richardson, a Cloverdale native, has been a member of the C. Mondavi & Family team for thirteen years, and was named COO of the organization in 2017. He spearheaded an impressive amount of growth for the business throughout his time at C. Mondavi & Family, doubling production capabilities for the company during his tenure.
Wallenbrock and Richardson expect that, over the next few days, the command center will fill with a battalion of trucks and other heavy equipment, communication centers and personnel. PG&E had already cut out brush at the far corner of the field, where the winery property ends at Deer Park Road, and installed a temporary bridge to create an access point directly onto Deer Park Road for efficient traffic flow to the fire zones. Richardson said he’d received a few calls from PG&E and the city relative to installing culverts for the bridge construction.
Currently, PG&E personnel are patrolling all the lines to take inventory of the damage. Asked if they were doing this by air or by ground transport, both Wallenbrock and Richardson said that the smoke was so heavy, that no aircraft could be used for this purpose. In fact, Cal Fire was unable to use aircraft for a good deal of Friday and Saturday in the firefight.
Charles Krug Winery was in the middle of harvest when the latest fires broke out, and the smoky conditions which prevailed due to other wildfires to the north and the east, had resulted in poor air quality that was making life difficult for the picking crews. Richardson noted that picking had been done in the morning by properly masked up crews, wearing N95’s until the AQ got too disruptive when they sent people home. “We’re certainly not picking during the current fire situation: we are not going to imperil our team.”
“Obviously, our tasting room has been closed since the beginning of the Glass Fire,” said Wallenbrock. “We had brought all of our whites in before the fire. The Sauvignon Blanc is one of our largest SKUs at Charles Krug, and it, and our Chardonnay were all in. We’ve also brought in some Merlot and a little Cabernet.”
Richardson notes that they’d started testing fermentations prior to the Glass Fire broke out, and felt that the Cabernet on Howell Mountain might be ok. “We have a chance to make quality Cab this vintage. It’s much more robust than Zin, Pinot Noir and Merlot.”
In 2017, they had fire all around them at Charles Krug. Some of their testing indicated notable exposure, and they figured they might be negatively impacted, but that vintage turned out great. “We are learning a lot about fire and smoke,” says Richardson. “More than we ever wanted to! One thing is we don’t pick during active smoke. The fruit will be fine if we let it hang. Sure, the pundits are saying vintage 2020 is toast, but we will wait and see how the quality is, but certainly won’t put out a wine that we aren’t confident about.”
He should know a little about smoke: he went through the 2008 fires in Mendocino where they had fresh smoke for 100’s of hours, which is really bad for grapes. As the smoke rises, it becomes less concentrated and the impact is reduced.
Charles Krug has 850 acres in Napa Valley, 450 in vines that range from Carneros to Howell Mountain. At this point, it looks like the vineyards in Calistoga, St. Helena are much more prone to smoke impact than those in Yountville.
Plus, says Richardson, “We have tricks up our sleeves. First, we have a tasting panel consisting of the entire winemaking team, the executive leadership team and the Mondavi family members. We will also have analysis from ETS and other labs, plus we use our own aroma profiles. We’ve also learned a lot from Australia. You can get smoke taint out, but you lose the character of the wine. We won’t do that. No flash détente. No cones. None of that.”
Richardson says they didn’t use any of that magic high tech juju in 2017, either.
The Charles Krug Winery basecamp won’t be the only such camp for PG&E in the region: many smaller ones will be established to deal with all the neighborhoods that need rewiring. Plus, this one cannot be utilized for helicopter drops of equipment, as that would require flying over major trafficked roadways like highway 29 and Silverado Trail.
You learn a lot about yourself and your colleagues when the chips are down. Having been evacuated from their primary residences due to the fires, a number of the Mondavi family found themselves back at the home compound, as it were, on Thursday afternoon. Suddenly, a fire that had been burning in the creekbed started racing towards the fallow land which PG&E was due to occupy. The Mondavi family quickly formed a bucket brigade to tackle the blaze, but COO Richardson, realizing that there were two huge propane tanks on the property that they use to run their frost protection equipment, decided to bring in the big guns. He hopped onto a backhoe, opened the clamshell blade, and began digging a fire break around the fire until the fire department arrived on scene. Let’s just say the Cal Fire folks were duly impressed. It’s good to have the right tools, and skills, on your team.
About C. Mondavi & Family
C. Mondavi & Family is a St. Helena based wine company founded in 1943 by Cesare and Rosa Mondavi. Owned and operated by co-proprietors,Marc Mondavi and Peter Mondavi Jr. ,along with their children, the C. Mondavi & Family portfolio includes Charles Krug Winery, CK Mondavi and Family, Flat Top Hills and French Blue. With the third and fourth generations at the helm, the family holds over 1,500 acres of Napa Valley and California vineyards. For more information visit www.cmondavifamily.com.