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Relic’s Story of the Atlas Fire, 2017
This is the story of how the Relic family experienced the historic and devastating Atlas Fire of 2017. We were incredibly fortunate to have almost all of our fruit harvested and safely in the winery by the time the fire started, and our winery escaped basically unscathed in an area of near complete destruction in Soda Canyon. Our hearts go out to all those who lost so much.
Sunday 11:00 PM
The drive back to Napa Valley from San Francisco can be windy, but something was different about the winds on October 8th. Mike was driving, and while crossing Carneros the winds from the north were so strong it was difficult to stay on the road. While approaching Napa, he began to smell smoke, and his phone started buzzing with texts from friends asking “How is your winery?” and “What is going on up there?” and “Are you all safely out of the winery?”
In a panic, Mike drove straight to Soda Canyon, where the police had blocked the road. The air at the store was sickeningly thick with smoke, and the winds were unbelievably strong. At some point, the small crowd at the store all felt the same thing: the urge to flee, as the store seemed about to catch fire. Mike left to head north on the Silverado Trail to see what could be seen of Frank and Julie Husic’s vineyard and home. It was nearly impossible to see through all the smoke, with only the raging fire visible on the hillside below Stag’s Leap. Mike thought surely all was lost. After watching and feeling the overwhelming sense of the power of the fire, it seemed the thing to do was to head home to St. Helena to tell Schatzi - who had just returned home from New York - what was happening. It was all so completely overwhelming.
Monday 6:30 AM
The next morning when Schatzi and Mike woke without electricity, they immediately drove toward the winery through thick smoke, but were met with road blocks at Silverado Trail in Napa and Oak Knoll. The fire was still raging at the top of Soda Canyon and in old Foss Valley, and was also heading northwest through Stag’s Leap toward Oakville and environs. In addition, the Tubbs, Partrick, Nunn, and other fires were devastating many parts of Napa and Sonoma. Three times that day they tried to get make it to the winery, with no success. The Silverado Trail was closed from Napa to Rutherford.
After seeing many friends and neighbors who had also been trying to access their properties, they gave up and headed back to St. Helena for a candle-lit dinner and a bottle of something good: a 2008 Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots. Many, many reports and rumors had been in the air that day, and nothing was certain. By the end of dinner, a friend who was helping to rescue animals in Soda Canyon made it to Relic, and texted Mike a video of the winery, seemingly intact! It appeared to be a miracle. They slept fitfully and hoped for easier times the next day.
Tuesday 6:30 AM
Mike had arranged for David and the harvest crew to hopefully meet at the Soda Canyon Store for a full day of punchdowns and pumpovers. The harvest interns Sara, Costanza and Chris tried unsuccessfully to gain access in Napa, while David went to Oak Knoll and happened upon Mike deep in discussion with the Sheriff’s deputy about exactly what law was being broken by driving past the blockade. It turns out it was “Breaking a Police Barricade in a State of Emergency.” Time to think of another plan!
The guys decided it was imperative that the tragedy clearly suffered by so many needed to be prevented at Relic. So, they sought a private bridge over the Napa River through vineyards. After no success, they decided to set out on foot. Late Tuesday morning, they set out hiking across the Napa River and up Soda Canyon. The scene of burnt homes, property and cars was shocking, and the images will be in their memories forever. On reaching the winery they were relieved to confirm what the video showed: almost everything, with the exception of some sink plumbing and a couple of umbrellas, was intact!
They quickly started cap management on the fermenters and took brix and temperatures, and found that all the tanks were about 72F and in great shape! The wines tasted delicious and they even filled a few barrels by gravity from a tank that was ready to come off the skins. After a huge day, they drove out in the winery truck, which was somehow in untouched condition.
The rockstar crew of David, Mike, Sara, Costanza and Chris met in Yountville the next morning, and headed to Calistoga to pick up a generator from Sean Behrens. They found a back way in to Soda Canyon, through a few vineyards, building a bridge across a ditch, over a 4x4 road, and over the ridge into Soda Canyon, and hauled the generator up to the winery to begin the hard work. Once the generator was wired into the 3-phase electrical system, Relic was operational and winemaking commenced full-time, with a number of lots pressed and put into barrels for many months of rest.
The rest of the week and weekend
For 6 days straight the amazing harvest crew went over the ridge into Soda Canyon! These days were filled with lots of cleaning and winemaking, but they were still sneaking into Relic to get the hard work done. Someone dubbed Relic #renegadewinery, but the crew knew they weren’t the only ones. The county announced that Soda Canyon Road would be under “hard closure” from Tuesday Oct. 17 through Friday Oct. 20.
The “hard closure” for Public Utilities and road work made it increasingly difficult to access the winery. Throughout the week clandestine journeys were made into the site, until they could finally obtain a permit to travel Soda Canyon Road on Friday October 20th. During a busy work day, with friends from White Rock Winery pressing on site, a PG&E truck arrived and electricity was back! A few hours later, the road was announced open, and work at Relic began to get back to normal.
Although winemaking at Relic began to get back to normal after about 11 days, every day the team drives past the burned homes, trees, and general devastation along Soda Canyon Road, and they are reminded with a heavy heart of all that was lost.