From the Glass Fire, comes the chance to build this Napa Valley winery again
Editor’s Note: Chris Howell is general manger and winegrower at Cain Vineyard & Winery. 2020 was Chris’s 31st harvest at Cain when the vineyards and the winery became one of the industry’s casualties in the Glass Fire.
Almost as soon as we awoke on the Monday morning, Sept. 28, following our evacuation from Cain late on Sunday night — actually, we didn't sleep much that night, we couldn't sleep — my wife Katie (Lazar) and I began receiving messages from friends wanting to know that we were safe, and then wanting to know how were the vineyard and the winery.
Sitting at a table in front of the Starbucks in downtown Napa, with the morning sun slowly coming up — we had arrived as soon as they opened, at 6 a.m. — we used the Wi-Fi to answer. We couldn't talk, but we could type: We were safe.
About the vines, the wines, the winery, our home, the homes of the families living on the ranch, we didn't know.
It was not until Tuesday that we were able to get back up Spring Mountain Road to get a glimpse of what remained. Of the winery, the houses, the beloved old redwood barn built on the homestead in the 1870's, all that was left were ashes. Of the barrels, there were only the steel hoops.
Of the vines, the answer is more complicated. Some still had green leaves. Some newly planted baby vines, to which we had given so much care that summer, were cooked, with their grow tubes melted around them. And some still had leaves, dried in the heat of the fire.
So many people reached out to us. So many offered to help, in any way they could. And many already have.
Seen from the perspective of the Old World, the surprisingly rapid development of excellent and beautiful wines in places like the Napa Valley, Sonoma and the New World in general, has long been attributed to an attitude of sharing and collaboration, exemplified by pioneers such as Robert Mondavi, John Daniels and André Tchelistcheff. But the spirit remains, and in the first week, we felt its resurgence, strongly.
Of course, some of our customers, both distributors and private clients, thought that Cain was gone. They thought that the loss of the winery was the loss of everything.
In fact, they thought that the winery was everything.
But the winery is just a building; the equipment is just equipment, though modified with tiny tweaks that even the greatest of winery mechanics might not have thought of; and the barrels are just barrels, though carefully crafted and maintained. We'll never have any of those objects again.
What we have is the opportunity to build all of this again, now that we know what we want, what we need.
What we lost were two vintages: 2019, where we had just completed the final blend of the 2019 Cain Five, which included a beautiful lot of Cabernet Sauvignon grown around La Piedra, that dramatic rock outcropping that focuses the energy of the Cain Vineyard.
For the 2020 vintage, despite obvious concerns about smoke, we were selectively harvesting our grapes, and the first lots of Merlot and Syrah were just going down to barrels to complete their fermentations. They seemed promising. But now, we'll never know.
What we have are our memories of what these young wines tasted like. And we have vintages in bottle (all safely stored in south Napa), just released (2016), and still to be released (2017 and 2018), along with a decade of library vintages to remind us.
Wine growing is a long-term endeavor — seen in today's fast-moving world of technology, it is very long term.
For some, five years is a business plan. For us, five years might get us to a first harvest, and 10 years to the first release. For such a vineyard-based wine project, a lifetime isn't enough. I have spent 30 years at Cain, and I feel like I’ve only recently arrived.
Some very sweet and thoughtful people offered us grapes.
As if. Many people, even in our wine community, simply don't get it. Or maybe we don't get it?
For most people, a winery is a brand, a label. What's inside the bottle could be a story, a flavor, but little more.
For them, wine is a product, a commodity. There's no escaping the realities of the marketplace.
But for us at Cain, and for many who think like us, wine is much more than a brand, a product. How else to explain the burgeoning numbers of wines in the world — not thousands, not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands, even millions. What commodity has this many brands?
Of course, most wine is a commodity, in a market which is highly competitive and hugely encumbered by thousands of brands struggling to find a spot on the shelves of even the largest of stores.
But what could explain the fascination that wine holds for so many people? No commodity could ever hold our attention in that way.
Because wine can be much more than a label — no matter how pretty or garish or humorous or eye-catching it may be — wine can be much more than a brand, a commodity. We all know this. That's what attracts us to wine. That is why we tend those vines.
The loss of the Cain winery, those two vintages, all the hand-written records — this is all very sad. The word for it is devastating.
But much more remains. In fact, the essence remains, which is the place. Many of the vines are fine. Next year, there will be a harvest. We have wine to sell. We have bills to pay and reports to file, IT to set up, and an environmental hazard to remediate. We have work to do!