Tuesday 9th October marks a very special occasion for Ray Signorello and his wife Tanya, for it was exactly a year ago to the day that their home and much of the properties on their wine estate were razed to the ground by the wildfires that swept through Napa and Sonoma, claiming many lives and devastating the Californian wine community. It could have been worse, as David Kermode discovers when he meets the team as they prepare to ‘break ground’ on a new winery that starts building on the one year anniversary. The razing of Signorello Estate became the iconic image of the devastating fires and Kermode hears an inspiring story of bravery, determination, resilience and recovery.
The wines from Signorello Estate will become available in the UK for the first time this Autumn.
The call came late at night.
Ray Signorello was away in Vancouver, his wife Tanya was at their Napa home. She was frantic; the ridge surrounding their estate was being ravaged by fire at a terrifying pace, whipped along by a wailing wind, the flames lapping at the walls. There was not a moment to lose, so Tanya threw some essentials into a small suitcase and fled, to the safety of a hotel.
Knowing Tanya was out and no-one else was there, Signorello rang his winemaker of 20 years, Frenchman Pierre Birebent, who was already soundly asleep at his St Helena home.
After the shortest conversation, Birebent leapt out of bed and into his car, speeding towards the property, by now consumed in what he describes as a “tornado of fire”.
The region’s firefighters were pulled in so many directions that night that Birebent, together with two colleagues, valiantly took on the flames, armed with garden hoses. At one stage, they were ordered to leave by the police, for their own safety, but returned shortly afterwards to have another go: “I know the estate better than the back of my hand”, Birebent tells me, with a defiant shrug, “so I knew we had an escape route.”
Perhaps it was futile, but so much was at stake. The harvest was complete and Birebent had just pressed the last of the 2017 Cabernet off its skins. The wines were sitting in tanks just metres from the Signorello family home that also served as a sales office and tasting room. Signorello’s own private wine collection, housed in that building, was completely destroyed in the blaze but, miraculously, the fermenting 2017 wines in their open air sealed tanks survived without any heat damage, as did the separate barrel room further up the hill, containing the entire 2016 vintage.
The fast, furious and arbitrary nature of the fire becomes evident from a short walk around the ruins. The main building is now flattened, but the rattan garden furniture from the adjoining pool deck all survived unscathed and now sits stacked like a lonely art installation. Alongside the wrecked house sits a neat line of vines, looking radiantly healthy. In all, Signorello lost a mere handful of its plants across its 20 hectares.
Just as the Signorello Estate winery became the reluctant poster child for the fires, with the unforgettable image of the blaze being beamed around the world, so too it now finds itself a totem for recovery: the phoenix from the ashes.
By a cruel twist of fate, this isn’t the first time Signorello has faced devastation, and possible ruin, from fire. Just over a decade ago, the team lost an entire vintage when a warehouse in which the wines were being stored was destroyed in an arson attack.
For Ray Signorello, faced with a hideous repeat of history, bouncing back was the only option:
“I knew almost immediately after walking onto the property after the fire and seeing the vineyards were spared that I would rebuild. We had a terrific facility before, but now I have an opportunity to rebuild the winery and add caves, taking into account everything I’ve learned over the last 30 years in business.”
So, as they break ground on that new winery, with a short ceremony to unveil the plans and thank those who have helped them, the optimism will be balanced by a sense of reflection, for the lives that were lost, the families left homeless, and the extraordinary coming together of the community who have fund-raised and offered practical assistance to all those who suffered.
Among those speaking at the event will be Napa Valley Vintners President Linda Reiff. Her organisation was tragically well versed in the co-ordination of relief efforts, having rapidly established a fund for the victims of the severe earthquake that shook the region only three years previously. Re-activated, it immediately began payouts, totalling millions of dollars, for victims of the fires, who had lost their homes or livelihoods. Such is the affection for Napa’s winemakers that help also came from all over the world. One year on, many closely involved are still choked with emotion when talking about the call to action that the relief effort inspired.
At Signorello, the determination to get back to business was evident even amidst the smouldering ruins. The tanks were untouched, but the power supply was completely cut off, leaving the pumps silent, and Birebent reliant on gravity to get his wines into barrel.
With winemaking in full flow, it was also crucial to get back to selling it: a portable building now houses a small tasting room run by Pierre Birebent’s wife Nathalie. Unremarkable from the outside, inside it is surprisingly cosy. As loyal customers are invited to taste the wines, poignancy comes from the giant image of the property in ruins, while inspiration is provided by the architect’s plans for its futuristic, and largely fire resistant, replacement.
Recovery is not without its challenges, for producers like Signorello, but also for the wider Napa region, including the vast majority whose properties were unscathed.
Mercifully, it is estimated 90 per cent of the 2017 crop had been harvested when the fires struck. What remained on the vines was kept separate to be tested for smoke taint. There is no suggestion that the fermenting wines would have been affected, in buildings that were untouched by the blazes, yet Napa’s winemakers know that the 2017 vintage will be scrutinised like no other. And they are prepared.
Not for the first time, Signorello – who will launch his wines into the UK later this Autumn – is leading from the front, putting his own flagship wine, Padrone, centre stage to challenge the doubters: “It was in tank fermenting when the fire broke out, and we’ll be toasting the ground breaking on Tuesday with that wine. It is one of the best I have ever made, if not the best.”
David Kermode is a writer, broadcaster and wine presenter with his own site vinosaurus.co.uk