My Cities Are On Fire
Cautionary Optimism Is The New Normal
It’s been a full week since I worked a double shift at one of the most historic wineries in California. A couple hours after I left, several fires had broken out between Calistoga, Santa Rosa, Napa and the mountains between and around them. An ember blew across several ranges in Napa to reach the hillside of that winery in Sonoma. Hell was upon pretty much all of both counties.
I was lucky to find this job. Life was already topsy turvy for me. I didn’t know if this region was going to sustain me after realizing San Francisco and a brief return to Los Angeles did/would not. So under some unsettled emotional and physical duress, I landed this job in Sonoma and a little cottage in Napa. I knew nothing of the intricacies of wine except for absorbing bits and sips from my winemaking Napa friends.
I arrived at Gundlach Bundschu ready to absorb whatever I could and hoped I could grow within or at least be comfortable enough with the job, pay my rent and get back on my feet. These things were happening. This is one of the most beautiful places one could be so lucky to drive into for work every day. No matter what was happening in my life or in the world, I could turn into the estate, look up the driveway, roll past block after block of vines and see the hillside and farm that this family have called home for 159 years — and smile.
What also has come with that beauty is a solid family that works for the Family. That sounds mob-like, but the family trees that are built upon these valleys are epic and as lore-filled as those East Coast families TV shows are written about. Currently Gun Bun, as locals and those who love their wine, call it, is run by Jeff the sixth generation of both sides of the family tree — Gundlach’s and Bundschu’s. His father Jim is retired but his presence and story-filled life is part of our every day vernacular on the job.
So last week I had finished an almost two weeks in a row of work, as I also spend one day a week working in the box office of a Napa theater. I finally had Saturday off and I couldn’t bring myself to do anything much more than getting dog food. We have been short-handed at the winery and business hasn’t slowed down after summer — it is Harvest after all and tourism is at an all-time high in wine country. That weekend alone there were two weddings and a concert on the property. The concert, headlined by Hope Sandoval was Sunday night. A text came through on Saturday asking if I could work the double. Host in the tasting room from 10–2, drive the Pinzgauer tour from 3–5, then pour wine at the concert from 6 till whenever.
At 10 AM Sunday I helped with the setup of our beautiful pond side courtyard where we serve tastings and cheese plates for folks that want to take their time and absorb the surroundings. At 11 I went into the tasting room, a 150 year old building and poured for the travelers coming from far and wide to explore the magic of Sonoma and Napa and Gun Bun’s luscious bottled fruits. I shared the story of six generations many times over while in good cheer with my copilots Gary and Elaine.
At 2 I scarfed a salad then hightailed it to set up the picnic for the Pinz tour which involves a spot within the vineyard where we stop and enjoy cheese plates and wines with 12 guests that have joined me in the rocking and rollin off road ride through the estate. At a few minutes before 3 I found my passengers at The Donkey Bar — our outdoor bottle bar — and passed out glasses with a taste of Chardonnay. I welcomed them and began the story of the Gundlach Bundschu history, including the pantomime on how to say the name. A “Gun,” A “Lock,” A “Bun,” A “Shoe!”
They followed me to the parking lot where we loaded into the Pinzgauer then rode a little way to “Mary’s House,” where I poured Pinot Noir and explained about the house being built on the property after they’d lost their homes and production facility in San Francisco in the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires. It always gets a groan when I tell them the house was finished in 1919 just in time for Prohibition. I set the scene of resilience and determination through those two incredible knee-bucklers followed by the Depression and World War and the property becoming a working farm over the next few decades. I finish this phase as they finish their Pinot describing the resurrection of the Winery in the late sixties by Jim Bundschu, our fifth generation patriarch.
We strap in and I put the six-wheeler in off-road mode and ascend the hillside to look over 320 acres of the property, 250 acres of vines and the Sonoma Valley floor. After stopping a couple times to look at the views and explaining American Viticultural Area borders, sustainable farming, micro climates, terroir and where we are at in the 2017 Harvest, we curved around the hillside and looked Northeast to see what looked like fire smoke, maybe somewhere in Napa.
I pointed out Jim and Nancy Bundschu’s house on the far end of the property, Daisy the rescue donkey peeking out of her barn then hit Napa Rd back to the entrance of the estate where we found the picnic I’d set up for them. Over the next 30 minutes they enjoyed tastes of Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and a bit more dust as we commented on the winds picking up some speed.
After re-parking the Pinz at its staging spot, we ended the tour back in the tasting room where I filled orders and bid adieu to this captive and fun group of visitors. I had little time to take a break but I took a snack up on the hillside above the cave and tried to keep said snacks from flying off the picnic table in the wind. Twenty minutes later I was back at the Donkey Bar opening bottles of wine for concert goers awaiting the show. Karen and I had a line of people for the next couple hours until they all wandered over towards the hundred year old barn where the stage is.
I closed the Bar then wandered that way too and found Elaine and team with another long line of folks buying glasses and bottles of wine. We could see from our vantage point, the trees blowing side to side a little harder than an hour before. When Hope began her set I was given a meal ticket so I went to the food truck and as I was ordering, their tent nearly picked itself up and blew over. People outside the barn commenting and sharing “this is cray” looks back and forth. This wasn’t just the usual ocean breezes coming through the Petaluma Gap. As it progressed, a patron came by to tell us one of the wood fences had basically disintegrated in front of him. I wasn’t sure what was said a little later but our high school aged runner was given an industrial flashlight and told to go behind the barn and “help hold the wall up.” That’s what I heard anyway, while Hope was wailing on stage and the people in the back near us, clucked with wine fueled conversation.
At 9:50PM, a break in the selling action, Elaine asked if I wanted to leave. I said I was ready. I grabbed my belongings including a bottle of ’14 Zinfandel that I’d chosen for my long-day bonus, and a bottle of Pinot that I forgot to grab for a concert I worked a couple weeks prior. Walking to the car, the dust and leaves and particles were swirling madly around me, I couldn’t see a thing. iPhone flashlight is a handy thing. Made it home to Napa 20 minutes later, poured a drink or two and relaxed, looking to be back at work at 10 AM Monday.
Instead I was awoken at 4AM by my friend Erica who alerted me of fire and brimstone and evacuations. “Get ready,” she said. I looked out my front window and saw two of my neighbors packing their cars. Then I saw several cars hurriedly spinning through the cul de sac then an official city car spinning through with it’s inner warning lights woot wooting. I began, blurry-eyed to put some bags together. I didn’t fucking know what to pack. I got my dog and heavens to Murgatroyd, dog food! I laid down for a few minutes till Erica called again around 5 and said it was official. The fireman had banged on her door and said, “Now.” She’s five blocks away — that was good enough for me. I grabbed a few more things including my passport — can’t believe I knew where it was, and poured it all into the car and left.
Erica is the GM of the theater I work at one day a week. My dog and I met her and her dog there and we retreated with blankets and pillows to the artist green room where the news started filtering in on our phones just how bad this was in such a short time. Rumors were rampant in an equally short amount of time. Truths were a much harder thing to come by over the next 48 hours.
The rumor that first gutted me was that Gun Bun was gone. The truth was that shortly after the electricity went out at the concert, Jeff sent someone to check on some smoke on the hillside which soon turned into another fight for the Gundlach Bundschu legacy. 111 years after the 1906 earthquake and fires, another family home was lost. Jeff later reported that after grabbing important things from all buildings, Jim and Nancy’s home and a house called the Thornsberry House were felled and the next 24 hours were dedicated to saving the rest of the buildings, most in danger next being the historic Mary’s House.
By that time, Santa Rosa had been essentially gutted and more and more fires had erupted across several counties. News was all over the map, literally and figuratively. The best way to receive news turned out to be Facebook and Twitter. Even then you had to weed through the truths. Elaine brilliantly set up a Gun Bun message feed on Facebook so we could stay in touch with each other and account for our safety.
The property was safe, save for the family home, the resident donkeys were safe even though they refused to be trailered, the production, the tasting room, Mary’s House — all safe. And then they weren’t. Winds picked up and shifted over another night and the fight was on all over again, not only to save Gun Bun, but our neighbor wineries and our sister winery Bartholomew Park. Every weather pattern, a nail biter. Jeff and his sister Katie at the front lines every minute to oversee their legacy. Tomorrow is another day.Another phase. Another hope.
I am back in my home after a respite in San Francisco and I await news of their needs of rebuilding business at Gundlach Bundschu. I know that there are thousands more stories from this devastation that are far worse than mine. Homes, businesses, wineries and lives lost. I write this to share an idea of my attachment to this Wild Wild West. I write this because this morning I thought of the words I’ve heard a couple times from the usually comic mouth of Bobcat Goldthwait, “Keep quitting till you find a place you don’t want to leave.” I write this because I am fueled by the family resilience over their 159 years. Actually longer than that, lets not forget the shipwreck that Jacob Gundlach experienced on his initial jaunt to California in the first place. What I hope for is some of that toughness to continue to spread through these vine covered valleys for the next six generations. So we change the script. We add an addendum. Another act. Another resurrection.
Open a bottle of wine from Sonoma or Napa. And then open another.