Paradise Ridge Winery faces rebuild challenges after Santa Rosa fire

Paradise Ridge Winery proprietors Sonia Byck-Barwick, second from left, Rene Byck, center, and Dr. Walter Byck, far right, review blueprints for rebuilding their Russian River Valley Estate on Thomas Lake Harris Drive, which burned down in the Tubbs Fire, with architects Asa Prentice, left, of BCV Architects and Don Brandenburger of Brandenburger Associates, at the Paradise Ridge Winery tasting room in Kenwood, California on Thursday, November 30, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

JEFF QUACKENBUSH,

NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

If plans work out, visitors could start returning to Paradise Ridge Winery’s vineyard and sculpture garden in north Santa Rosa in coming months, but it likely will take longer than that for the return of the tasting room and hospitality center after the October wildfires. And rebuilding of the winery is still up in the air.

“The goal to have some activity back on the property sometime this summer,” said co-owner Sonia Byck-Barwick. “It may be by appointment only, where they can sit down in the vineyards on picnic tables.”

To help make that happen in the near term, charred debris and fire-killed trees are set to be removed, and talks are continuing with a couple of groups interested in hosting large fire-related fundraisers there, she said. One is the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, which is considering having an event for 150–200 connected to the annual Human Race.

But delaying the rebuild has been money. As with many other North Bay property owners, the proprietors of Paradise Ridge came to realize that the umbrella insurance policy didn’t cover as much as they thought, Byck-Barwick said.

“We’re pretty underinsured, as many people were,” she said.

Had there been a fire in one of the buildings, barns and homes on the 155-acre property, per-occurrence coverage under such a policy may have been sufficient. But the Tubbs fire took out eight structures on the property — all but a 700-square-foot building and the patio pizza oven — as it swept through the Fountaingrove neighborhood and into Coffey Park in the early hours of Oct. 9. Gone was the winery full of newly harvested grapes, aging wine in the cellar building, as well as the visitor venue named Best Tasting Room in California by USA Today in 2016.

About two months after the fire, the owners of Paradise Ridge learned from an adjuster that the policy didn’t have separate money for debris removal from the amount for rebuilding. The original bid was $750,000 just for private cleanup. Though a deadline already had passed for participating in the reimbursement program for cleanup on the three homes under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the county Board of Supervisors helped the owners get back in.

Debris removal is set to start Feb. 26, and that’s when the winery proprietors will start to learn how much they can rebuild, Byck-Barwick said. During cleanup, they’ll find out whether engineer tests will clear the buildings’ foundations as being safe for reuse, dramatically lowering the rebuild cost. An architect and builder are set to be selected in the next few weeks.

“Right now, the focus is on just rebuilding the tasting room and hospitality center,” she said. Paradise Ridge’s Kenwood tasting room escaped the Sonoma Valley blazes untouched. “We’re not sure what will happen with the winemaking building.”

The urgency of rebuilding the winery is lessened because winemaker Dan Barwick has been finding it a simpler process to make the brand at Flanagan Winery near Healdsburg, she said. That facility is permitted to produce 25,000 cases a year.

Founded a quarter century ago, Paradise Ridge was one of the most publicized among the 10 wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties destroyed mostly in the first hours of the October blazes. The Business Journal previously has detailed progress with rebuilding at Signorello Estate in Napa Valley and Frey Vineyards in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley.

The devastated North Bay wineries were a tiny fraction of the hundreds of bonded production facilities in the North Coast, and 99.8 percent of 139,204 acres of vines in Sonoma and Napa counties were unaffected by the flames, according to a Sonoma State University study.

Firefighting officials note that vineyards can be effective firebreaks, because of common features such as roads around their borders to allow tractors to turn, irrigation of the vines and weed management. Still, they note that even that may not stop damage from a firestorm like Tubbs. For example, vineyards in the Atlas Peak appellation of northwestern Napa Valley suffered extensive damage from the gale-whipped flames.

Byck-Barwick estimates that 20 percent of its estate vines — 3 acres out of 15 — were damaged, and viticulture experts from the University of California, Davis, have been out evaluating those vines as they emerge from winter slumber. Early observations suggest some of those vines will bounce back, the rest will be replanted, Byck-Barwick said.

Destroyed with the winery were 120 tons of just-harvested grapes and wine from the 2016 harvest aging in barrels — about 8,000 cases’ worth — as well as some wine for custom-crush clients. The winery had bottled wine stored in a warehouse offsite that wasn’t affected.

Another big lesson the wine company learned from the fire is the importance of continuous offsite data backups. The most recent backup of club member data was completed six weeks before the fire, between shipments of wine to club members. After the fire, the staff had to scramble to reconstruct the club data, and some members are still calling about missed or duplicate deliveries, Byck-Barwick said.

“What’s happened is not a tragedy,” said Byck-Barwick. “I still have finances, and I have a bed to sleep in.”

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.