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Unforgiving Wildfires Affect Vineyard Workers and Owners

A wildfire burns behind a winery, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif.
A wildfire burns behind a winery, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif.

When the wildfires ignited, vineyard workers stopped picking grapes and fled for their lives. Some vineyard owners decided to stay and fight back, spending days digging firebreaks and sleeping among their vines for safety.

As the danger drew closer, grape pickers spread word of the threat and helped neighbors pack their homes. The owner of an elite golf resort abandoned his home to try to save his golf course.

The deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history imperiled both the low-wage workers who harvest the nation's most valuable wine grapes and the wealthy entrepreneurs who employ them. Vintners were suddenly plunged into the same desperate struggle as their laborers, with everyone fighting to preserve the things most precious to them _ families, belongings and businesses.

On the public beach campgrounds where hundreds of evacuees escaped the flames, the affluent slept alongside migrant workers and combed through donated supplies.

"We had people in Mercedes and Lexuses showing up" with soot on their faces after losing everything, said Patty Ginochio, a volunteer who helped feed, house and clothe evacuees. Even some of the well-off "had nothing but the clothes on their back. It's humbling."

If anything, the fires seemed to target the affluent, blackening leafy suburban developments and hilltop estates more than the flatlands where many farm workers and middle-class families live.

Winery owners with multiple houses will take vastly different roads to recovery than the grape pickers who lost the only rental home they could hope to afford. But for a short time, fire was the great leveler in a region where the wealthiest 1 percent of people makes 20 times more than the rest.

Everybody thinks the winery owners are "rich guys and rich families, and they're above everything," said Adam Mariani, a fourth-generation farmer whose family runs the Scribe Winery in Sonoma. "But the truth is people are completely bootstrapping here" and worried about the effect of the fires on their livelihood.

Firefighter Chris Oliver walks between grape vines as a helicopter drops water over a wildfire burning near a winery Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Firefighter Chris Oliver walks between grape vines as a helicopter drops water over a wildfire burning near a winery Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif.

The harvest was winding down on Oct. 8 as Gonzalo Jauregui worked an overnight grape-picking shift intended to protect workers and the fruit from the heat of the day. Around 10 p.m., a gale blew into the vineyard outside of Sonoma with a strength that the 45-year-old had never seen before.

"We saw the power lines bouncing against each other and trees losing their branches and sparks flying," Jauregui recalled. The grape harvesters ran to their cars.

Dozens of other blazes were erupting at the same time across wine country, and Jauregui "could see the fire coming down the mountain."

At the Scribe Winery, the winds disrupted a dinner among the vines, upending table settings. Diners who had hoped to linger over their meals were driven inside. Kelly Mariani, one of the family members there, recalled the ominous rattle of rattlesnakes in dry grass as the wind rose.

By midnight, flames had burned a neighbor's home and were creeping down an oak ridge toward the winery buildings and family homes.

"There were hurricane winds. The house was rattling. The dog was barking," said Adam Mariani, whose family has worked for a decade to rebuild the winery, which was eradicated during Prohibition and turned into a turkey farm.

As fires came over ridge after ridge above the wine valleys, Manuel Contreras lingered for days at a Sonoma apartment complex housing mostly migrant workers like him. He helped neighbors pack belongings and find transportation and shelters.

"I want to be the last person out," he said.

While he spoke, firefighters and sheriff's deputies went house to house and business to business to warn people that the flames were expected to arrive within hours. But, Contreras said, authorities never came to tell the Spanish-speaking workers.

"We were waiting for them to come to tell us" it was finally time to go, he said. The grape workers finally joined the evacuation when they saw streams of cars racing out of town.

At Napa's championship Silverado golf resort, former PGA master Johnny Miller climbed to the roof of the white-pillared country club with a garden hose to save the clubhouse himself. He taped other hoses to the rails of balconies to spray water down on embers.

In one of the mansions near the course was Tim Wall, whose businesses include Rug Doctor carpet-cleaning and the golf resort. He made sure his family and animals were safe and left his home to its fate. Then he fought to save the golf course.

"I hadn't thought of it that way," Wall said of his decision to choose the course over his home. "If the house burned down, it wouldn't be near the impact, economically or otherwise, to myself or other people." The home survived.

In Sonoma County, Jauregui and his co-workers and neighbors sped home through smoke. They woke their families, then pounded on doors of their apartment building to wake others.

Adam Mariani, with help from a changing cast of relatives, friends, neighbors and passing crews of firefighters, used shovels and tractors to gouge firebreaks in the dirt.

Mariana and his brother figured their homes were lost, but they fought to save the winery's restored hacienda, a landmark from the days of California's first wine makers in the 1850s. When Adam needed to rest, he drove his car to the middle of the vineyards, where the live rows would resist fire.

The firebreaks, along with helicopter water drops from a reservoir maintained by the Gundlach-Bundschu winery and the vineyards themselves, helped crews finally turn the corner on the wildfires a week after the blazes began. In all, more than 100,000 acres burned in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties, and more than 100,000 people evacuated.

Even as the flames eased, winery employees and owners alike faced economic fears. Many had gone more than a week without work, and months of rebuilding lay ahead. Shelters, soup kitchens and donation centers opened. Near Jauregui's home, 2,500 returned evacuees lined up last Wednesday for free lunches.

That day, he knocked on the doors of a bakery and other businesses to ask for work.

Scribe employees returned Wednesday, many for the first time. The green and gold landscape was etched with dark char lines. Blackened trees surrounded the winery on three sides. But the old hacienda, the homes and the winery buildings still stood.

Winery workers came back with red eyes. Adam Mariani enfolded them in his arms.

"It's all here," he said.