Fire Storm

Ted Hall’s Fight to Save His Napa Winery From Wildfires

The winemaker lost nearly everything in a fire years ago and fought tooth and nail not to let it happen again.

Perched atop his lookout post, Ted Hall watched in horror as the wildfires approached Napa Valley and toward Long Meadow Ranch.

As I read his detailed and harrowing dispatches on Facebook about the destruction, all I could think of was not again. Hall, who runs a winery, organic farm and beef business, has the unfortunate distinction of having already rebuilt his life and business after a devastating fire.

In October 2005, 7,000 cases of Long Meadow Ranch’s 2001 and 2002 vintages, along with its wine library, were destroyed in a wine warehouse by a fire set by an arsonist. And the recent wildfires that swept through Northern California threatened to finish Hall’s business off for a second time.

Hall and his family fought the huge Nuns fire for eight days. It ultimately took more than 100 firefighters, DC-10s dropping fire retardant, and 20 bulldozers creating a 150-foot-wide firebreak that stretched five miles to ensure that his ranch and winery above St. Helena was not engulfed in flames. The land he leases to graze his cattle in the Carneros district at the south end of the Napa Valley was dealt a harsher blow. About 1,200 acres of pastureland burned up on Monday, Oct. 9, although no cattle died.

“It was gut wrenching,” a relieved but tired Hall told me. The last of the fires, which erupted Oct. 8 and burned 110,720 acres, almost 7,000 structures, killed 43 people, and caused more than $3 billion in damage, were finally out. About 20 wineries were destroyed or seriously damaged.

For an unbelievable 13 days, hundreds of people turned to Hall for his up-to-the-minute accounts and photos of what was burning in the Mayacamas Mountains on the west side of the Napa Valley.

“His real-time descriptions of what was happening at his ranch during the fires were incredible,” said Julia Flynn Siler, who met Hall while writing The House of Mondavi. At that time, Hall had taken over management of the Robert Mondavi Winery, which had imploded over family disagreements. Hall eventually assisted in the sale of the iconic winery to Constellation Brands for $1.36 billion.

Winemakers are keenly aware that the elements play a huge role in determining how well grapes mature on the vine. But no matter how often a grape grower checks the heat index or wishes for a little more or a little less rain, considering the impact of fire is not usually part of the calculus. Not even in California, which burns regularly.

In 2005, Hall did not think of fire when he decided to store thousands of bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, and Merlot in the Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, about 16 miles south of Napa. The wine came from the 640-acre parcel nestled in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains that Hall and his wife, Laddie, purchased in 1989. Working with their son, Chris, they had transformed the rundown property into a vibrant winery, olive oil, and food operation, and would soon go on to open Farmstead, a critically acclaimed restaurant in St. Helena. It served the family’s wine and the chef used fruits, vegetables, and beef raised from Highland cattle for the restaurant’s dishes.

Hall did not know that the area in which Long Meadow Ranch wines were stored was directly underneath an area rented by Mark Anderson, a Sausalito man who ran his own wine storage business for private collectors. Anderson had secretly started selling his clients’ wine (and would steal some unreleased Long Meadow Ranch wine as well) and pocketed the funds. As police uncovered the thefts and indictments started pouring in, a panicked Anderson set fire to the warehouse to cover his tracks, according to prosecutors. His arson destroyed 4.5 million bottles of fine California wine, including Hall’s, worth an estimated $250 million. Anderson is currently serving a 27-year sentence in federal prison.

The 2005 fire was a devastating blow for Hall who had built up the family business into a 12,000 to 15,000 case operation, mostly by spending weeks on the road selling his wine to stores and restaurants. Suddenly, there was no inventory or promise of any income. Determined not to fire his vineyard crew, Hall turned to making white wine, which, unlike red wine, can be made and sold quickly. He also made some grappa. Still, it took the business at least five years to recover, he said.

When the Nuns fire broke out Oct. 8, it did not immediately threaten Long Meadow Ranch, with its 16 acres of vineyards, winery, and the Hall home. It did, however, scorch the pastureland. But two days later, as the fire grew in intensity and power and cellphone service were cut off, the Halls evacuated the ranch. They took mementos, art, and other valuables out of their home. They left behind the hundreds of gallons of wine both fermenting and aging in the wine house. Some of the grapes were still maturing on the vines but LMR’s farm crew had harvested most of the crop.

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“The fires are still zero percent contained and we can expect no firefighting help for our property,” Hall posted on Facebook on Oct. 10. “All resources are still deployed on life safety missions.”

Over the next few days, Hall and his son, Chris, who had majored in fire science and is a volunteer firefighter for the nearby hamlet of Rutherford, watched nervously as the fire shifted with the winds, putting the ranch at greater or lesser risk. They bulldozed firebreaks to defend the property.

“We realized as this thing got worse that it wasn’t enough,” said Hall.

Over the next few days, the situation grew direr as flames came toward the property. There were no firefighters on the scene until Oct. 14, and then hundreds came to defend the ranch and ridge. The Halls brought in water tanks and made sure their on-site private hydrants were fully primed.

“The prettiest thing I have EVER seen is a DC10 dropping fire retardant on our ridge… the big time Air Force has arrived! Multiple planes dropping. We still need more,” Hall wrote on Oct. 14.

The fire raged closer to the winery. It edged onto Hall’s property, even burning the lookout post he had used for a week to check the course of the fire. After the flames had consumed about 300 acres of forest on Hall’s land, he wrote: “The Air Force is flying runs over us continuously. The fight is all on our ranch at the moment. Fire crews are running hoses down the entire length of the major firebreak and they will soon set up a water tanker relay to supply water. The crews will then fight along the firebreak to hold containment as needed.”

Eventually, at least 130 firefighters, including many who are convicts serving time in California prisons, 50 pieces of heavy machinery, numerous water trucks, and miles of hoses would be stationed at Long Meadow Ranch. Victory against the fire was declared in the evening of Oct. 18. Hall, an ex-Marine and former management consultant, maintained an impassioned attitude throughout the fight, he said, marshaling his energies to helping Cal Fire figure out a strategy to put out the blazes. “I run to the fight, I don’t run from the fight,” said Hall. But tears came to his eyes when he got a text from his son at 6:30 p.m. “Get some rest. Don’t need to be here on any schedule. The Ranch has been saved.”

Long Meadow Ranch bears scars of the fight. Much of the vegetation around the house and winery is gone, victims of the fire breaks dug to protect the structures. Some of the roads leading up to the ranch were badly damaged by the fire trucks and heavy machinery. Numerous fences were burned. And like in the rest of wine country, business has fallen off dramatically, both at the winery, but mostly at Farmstead, which has seen a 45-percent drop in business. Tourists are avoiding Napa Valley—some have even canceled reservations for the spring of 2018 even though the fires are out.

“The real tragedy is that October is always everyone’s busiest month,” said Hall. “From where I am sitting in my office in the western hills looking across, it looks like the Napa Valley always looked. But there are no visitors.”