The evening the wildfire ignited, Chimney Rock Winery’s night crew was picking grapes in the vineyard under the glare of trailer-mounted lights. It was the homestretch of the Cabernet harvest. Suddenly an orange glow appeared in the night sky and within minutes flames leapt over the ridgeline above the winery then dashed downhill toward the workers.
Doug Fletcher, vice-president of winemaking, was at home in Napa when he smelled smoke. He stepped outside to investigate and was caught off guard by the thick, charred air. Minutes later, the night crew leader called to tell him about the fire.
Fletcher “raced up to Chimney Rock,” he said, to find that the flames had already blazed down to the vineyard’s edge, fueled by fierce winds. He made sure that everyone in the 30-person harvesting crew got out safely, then locked up the buildings. “We put the fruit they’d picked that night into the winery, made sure it was safe, and closed the doors,” he said.
Evacuating, Then Waiting
A TV news van had parked outside the winery gate to film the firestorm as Fletcher hurried home to join his wife. The couple packed a few treasured belongings—computer files, wedding pictures, art pieces—and drove to a hotel room in Vallejo, 15 miles away.
Throughout that night, Fletcher watched the TV news play and replay footage of Chimney Rock with the fire raging on the hillside behind it. He tried to drive to the winery the next morning, but all roads were closed. “No one was allowed past the roadblocks,” he said. For the next two days, he and other winery employees wondered if the buildings had made it through the blaze.
On the third day, Fletcher and a few other managers decided they had to find a way in. One of the group was Benjamin Rotnicki, the director of Chimney Rock’s direct-to-consumer marketing.
“The roads were closed, but that didn’t stop us from going,” Rotnicki said. “We walked about three miles through vineyards and then down the road. It was pretty eerie with all the smoke in the air. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Silverado Trail not buzzing with cars.”
The group found Chimney Rock’s buildings untouched. “It was pretty emotional to see it with our own eyes. All of our vineyards and facilities were safe,” Rotnicki said.
Like many Napa wineries, Chimney Rock was saved by its vines. “The vineyards were a natural fire break,” Fletcher said. “There was so much moisture in the ground and the plants that the fire marched right up to the edge of the vineyards and just stopped.”
The 119-acre vineyards surround some of Silverado Trail’s most striking architecture. The Cape Dutch-style winery buildings, modeled after wineries in South Africa, gleam with whitewashed walls, high roofs, and curved gables. The dramatic Palisades, a cluster of jagged basalt formations high on Atlas Ridge, form the backdrop for the graceful stucco structures.
Giving Back, One Glass at a Time
Chimney Rock Winery was able to re-open a week after the fires. To celebrate, Rotnicki and his staff gathered together the growers of the Stags Leap District for a two-day fundraising event called “Eat Drink Give Napa.”
“The Stags Leap AVA is a very small, close-knit community, and we are proud to say that we work shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors,” Rotnicki said. Events were held at multiple Stags Leap wineries on the same weekend to raise money for the Napa Valley Community Foundation.
On Dec. 3, Chimney Rock will host an afternoon open house with live music and wine tasting. Donations from the event will benefit Napa families in need.
“We’re telling people to come and visit Napa,” Rotnicki said. “Hotels are open. Restaurants are open. In most places, you have to really look to see where the fire was. The wineries are open, and it’s Cabernet season.”
If you can’t come visit Napa, you can still support Napa in your own community. Buy Napa wine in your local stores, or order wine online from area wineries. Bottles can be shipped to most U.S. states.