Molly McCalla scours the ruins of the Frey family vineyard looking for her black cat.
The fire rushed over the hill so fast that there was no time to get the cat before they fled. But McCalla has been leaving food where the cat’s home used to be, and she’s seen some paw prints in the ashes.
“Purusha!” she calls, with a long roll on the R. “Mrow mrow!”
McCalla, her husband and their son had about five minutes to pile into the back of a pickup truck and leave the night of the fire.
“When we woke up, I thought we were going to die,” McCalla says.
The main road out was completely blocked by flames, so they had to go the other way — up the hill, down a treacherous dirt road and over seven creek crossings — to escape.
“The fire was like a lion, roaring 10 feet away from me,” recalls Osiris Frey, McCalla’s son. “It was very, very loud.”
Osiris was named for the Egyptian god of the afterlife. At 10 years old, he can handle the responsibility of his name. He was the one who saw the wall of flames approaching and told his parents they should evacuate right away.
“I’m 10 years old, but it was a really intense experience for my life,” he says.
Four generations of the Frey family live and work at the Redwood Valley vineyard – the first organic and biodynamic winery in the country. The night the October wildfires broke out, 64 people were sleeping on the land, including family and employees. Everyone got out safely, from the 93-year old matriarch, Beba Frey, to her two-year-old great-granddaughter.
All but two homes on the land were destroyed. The winery offices, the bottling line and the tasting room are now rubble.
But the wine is okay.
The metal-roofed warehouse holding about 10,000 cases of bottled wine survived, and 154 stainless steel tanks that can hold 1 million gallons of wine came through intact.
“You can see some of them, the jackets on the tanks got charred pretty good,” says McCalla, as she surveys the destruction.
The fire rushed through so fast, it didn’t have time to damage the wine.
“You think of how long it takes to boil a big pot of water on your stove,” said Katrina Frey, the vineyard’s executive director and one of the founders. “Obviously there’s a huge amount of thermal mass in one of those tanks, so they were not overheated.”
The winery’s reliance on steel tanks ultimately protected their wine from wildfire. As an organic winery, they cannot age their wines in wooden barrels. Air seeps through the wood, which would mean using non-organic sulfites to prevent oxidation.
“The business is not destroyed,” Frey says. “We have a bright future, but we also lost sales.”
Normally, they’d be bottling wine two or three days a week this time of year. Now, they’re planning to hire a mobile bottling plant.
“We would have done that by now except all the labels burned up as well,” Frey explains. “So we had to re-order a year’s worth of labels and capsules and corks.”
As for the grapes on the vines, about half had already been harvested before the fire and were stored safely in the steel tanks. Many vines outside the fire zone survived unscathed, but about 10 percent of grapes in Redwood Valley burned on the vine.
Frey is worried that some of what’s left might be smoke-flavored. That’s a concern shared by all the vineyards in the fire regions in Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties.
“Everyone is sending their early wines to labs where there’s testing for smoke taint,” Frey says.
Smoke damage occurs on the molecular level, and sometimes the smoke aroma or ash flavor isn’t released until fermentation or until a bottle of wine is opened. So wineries can’t tell right now if grapes are tainted just by sniffing or tasting them.
“Everyone is segregating the crops as they come in, so that if there is evidence of smoke taint, we cannot use those tanks,” Frey says.
For now, the harvest must go on. People are back at work, driving grape harvesters, de-stemming and crushing grapes, salvaging what they can. The air smells like young wine.
“It keeps everybody busy. And it keeps our mind off the depths [of the losses],” says Tom Brower, aka Tombo, a tractor driver and carpenter at the vineyard.
He lived one ranch over from the vineyard and lost everything he owns in the fire. He, his 12-year-old son and all their neighbors had to flee from the fire that claimed nine lives.
“Everybody is sort of holding it in,” he says. “Little by little, you let it out, and you cry with your friends.”
Everywhere Brower goes, he sees something that’s gone. He’d just built a new redwood deck around the tasting room in September, right before the wave of tourists usually shows up for the fall harvest.
“I oiled it nicely with Brazilian rosewood oil. I was proud of it,” he says. “It didn’t last very long.”
He’d just rebuilt a footbridge over the creek after heavy rains caused a huge oak tree to fall and wipe out the original.
“Then the fire destroyed it again,” he says, with a little laugh. “Like, geez! Do I have to do it a third time? And I probably will.”
For Molly McCalla, it’s the barn.
Her job on the farm for the last decade was raising a family of about 10 goats. She walked them through the vineyards every day, and their manure was used to make the biodynamic compost that feeds the vines. The barn they were sleeping in collapsed in the fire.
“The first goat was born the day after I gave birth on the land to my son, who’s 10,” she says. “They all had names. Some had middle and last names.”
It’s strange, but she says she feels blessed knowing the goats are gone. Knowing her home is gone. Getting closure around those losses has allowed her to start thinking about the future.
But before she can truly move on, she needs to find out what happened to her little black cat.