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How Northern California Winery Owners Are Rebuilding in the Aftermath of ‘Despair’

November 27, 2019, 1:30 PM UTC

California suffered its deadliest and most destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018, costing the state at least $25 billion combined. And in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, which received the brunt of the damage, fire-devastated winery owners are dealing with incalculable losses: of decades-old vines, tasting rooms and hospitality spaces, fermentation tanks and, perhaps most critically, an entire year’s harvest. 

Some, like Andrew Cates of family-owned Segassia Vineyard in Napa County, are struggling to get much of anything done—down to the most minuscule repair jobs.

“It’s been over two years since the fire and only just last month was I able to get a well dug,” Cates tells Fortune. “That’s how backed up the contractors are. It’s hard to find work. It’s hard to get anyone to do anything for a fair price.”

“It’s been absolutely a nightmare,” he says. “A nightmare.”

His father, Chris Cates, figures that the vines will take 10 to 15 years to recover, according to NPR, but the two haven’t merely been sitting and waiting. While their grapes suffered smoke taint, or altered flavor due to smoke exposure, and were unsuitable for wine, they were often still tasty, and could be viable for other purposes.

So they leveraged their side business of wine grape raisins, Wine RayZyns, to charitable ends, partnering with the Maryland nonprofit Food Recovery Network to launch Rescue RayZyns. One dollar from every online purchase is split between the nonprofit and the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.

The pair had been making raisins out of wine grapes since 2014, partly due to their nutritive qualities. (Cates’s father—a retired cardiologist—often prescribed wine to his patients.) Cates credits the “skin and the seed of the wine grape” as having “all the health benefits.” 

As to how these particular raisins are created? 

“We take a wine grape in its whole fruit form, sweat out the water and use the natural sugars inside the fruit to caramelize and toast the seed,” he explains. “This is a completely new category of dried fruit.”

They also sell RayZyns wholesale to hotel chains and bar companies—and, most notably, they inked a partnership with United Airlines earlier this year. “We’re growing very rapidly,” Andrew says. “It was out of despair. I lost everything. This was a reaction to dire circumstances, trying to turn lemons into lemonade.”

When it comes to northern California vintners, Cates is far from alone in trying to wring positivity from crushing loss—other Northern California wineries are regrouping and rebuilding in the face of lost property, wages, and tourism.

Napa’s Patland Estate Vineyards lost everything but a guest house and their wine cave, but in 2018, they recovered enough to debut their first sparkling wine. Storybook Mountain, a Calistoga winery that weathered the “physical and psychological” loss of its vintage wine library, posted that they “dodged [a] bullet” of another encroaching fire this fall. And Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, which lost its buildings and three homes, is making wine offsite while they rebuild.

Check out the above video chronicling Segassia Winery, Paradise Ridge, and their surrounding region’s destruction and rebuilding.

While recovery efforts continue in California, recurring wildfires hit the state each year, and are leading to evacuations even today. Such fires are considered an inevitable part of the state’s foreseeable future. To donate to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, visit: www.napavalleycf.org