From: THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, SUMMER 2016
Sure, I could use another pair of hands
On the phone, he is laconic, even on such a day, for that is Randy. Yes, the fire’s close, he tells me, likely to get closer. Sure, he could use another pair of hands. I’m at the bottom of Napa Valley, working on a book, and I put on hiking boots and drive the 20-odd miles north with a water bottle and a hat, not knowing quite what to expect.
Cars are coming down Howell Mountain, but a few are going up, too, and I join topping out on a country road overlain with low, scudding clouds pierced by intermittent sun. The way into the Dunns’ property turns from tarmac to dirt, and at the end of the road an ancient D4 Caterpillar snorts in its labors, flaking yellow paint with rust showing through like industrial pentimento. The machine seems too simple to be effective, yet Randy has built a firebreak, trenching the edge of the sunflower field and pushing up windrows of dirt, rock, and dry pine needles blown from the big trees.
The dozer was Army surplus, rebuilt in Okinawa after World War II and later put up for sale. Randy bought it in the town of Tulelake decades ago and drove it home on a borrowed flatbed truck, anticipating his future as a successful and, as it turned out, highly individual maker of fine wine in the modern heart of American viticulture.
It’s 9:30 A.M., and Randy’s Levi’s and T-shirt are already filthy, a fitting match for the dilapidated straw hat sitting crookedly on his head, his white mustache a gleaming brushstroke in the brim’s shadow. Behind him is a dusty horse paddock, a stand of apple trees, and a sprawling woodshed and machine shop, its bat-winged corrugated iron roof held down with heavy stones. Mounted on the gable is a neon sign shaped like a bottle, made by a friend from vintage bits of salvaged tubing. It will announce, the next time it’s switched on, Wine!
A pickup comes barreling in from White Cottage Road, loaded with all-terrain bicycles. The beefy driver brakes and leans out the window. It’s Mike, Randy’s stepson and Dunn Vineyards’ official winemaker now, involved in all aspects of the growing and rendering of cabernet sauvignon. Unshaven, smiling crookedly, he seems the picture of affability. But the conversation is pointed: the fire’s said to be moving in on the golf club at Aetna Springs, in nearby Pope Valley. Then Mike asks, “Did the horses get into the vineyard?”
They did not, but if they have to be let out of the paddock, they know their way around the property and will have a good chance of surviving. “They’re hungry,” Mike adds. “I think I’ll go get them a bale.” And he’s gone again.
The landscape has been exhausted by years of drought, and the understory of the tall oaks and conifers is bleached. In the distance, tree trunks stand out as dark slashes in brittle blond stubble, the madrone branches and pine needles as dry as dust. What has always been comforting to the eye is now vaguely threatening.
Waiting for fire inspires an almost easeful fear, as if the threat can be banished at any moment—a lessening of the wind, a bit of rain—but it’s an edgy gamble. Whether the fire will appear suddenly and ruin their lives, possibly even claim them, or turn and consume the next ridge over, is impossible to foretell. Information about a fire’s progress is not often available—the official Cal Fire website is busy and difficult to navigate—and fire is a constantly mutating menace that only those in the middle of it can truly know.
By 10:30, the smell of smoke is stronger. Though the barely detectable breeze is southerly, a big fire can create its own dynamic. Low clouds presumably have kept the bombers from flying in with their loads of liquid fire retardant. No one knows for sure what’s going on, only that Angwin airport is closed and people are fleeing. Randy went there earlier to move some fuel away from his plane in its hangar. Now he starts up the D4 again and mounts it, headed for a last line of windrow between the flats and the hill.
A quarter-mile up that steep dirt road and just over the crest is the Dunns’ estate vineyard. In 30-odd years, it has earned a reputation for wines of longevity, tannic density, and beautiful bottle bouquet after a decade or more of age. Lean, intense fruit is part of that reputation, in direct contradistinction to the upfront jammy embrace and riveting alcoholic follow-through of most popular high-end Napa Valley cabernets.
Vineyards are good at thwarting flames, providing little fuel, but this one would make a very expensive firebreak indeed. Wine from its fruit paid for the Commander and its lesser predecessors, including a secondhand 1946 drag-tail Aeronca Champ, in which Randy once courted Lori. It also paid for the Diemme grape press, the tunnels in the mountainside, and countless French oak barrels. This was long before Randy, in the final rigors of earning his PhD in entomology at UC–Davis, took an elective course in enology. He started making the stuff in a plastic barrel in the back of his used Ford Econoline van, sloshing nascent wine onto the floor as he circumnavigated Lake Berryessa between Davis and Napa Valley, where he worked for Caymus Vineyards.
Her face drawn, Lori returns from church in St. Helena midmorning. “The fire will get to Wildlake before it gets to us,” she says, her voice breaking. “There’re mountain lions up there. And deer, bobcats, bears.” She hurries up to the house to collect more valuables.
Their daughter, Kristina, and her daughter, Taylor, live just down the road, but they spent the night with relatives in St. Helena and will stay there tonight, too. The nagging ambiguity of the day is shared by the hundreds who have fled Lake County and flocked to the Calistoga fairgrounds, having lost their homes. Many are bunking with friends, family, or employers on the Napa Valley floor: pourers, waiters, barkeeps, forklift drivers, flower arrangers, pruners, punchers-down of the floating caps of grape skins in stainless steel fermenting tanks, and caterers who often have to cross a mountain range on two-lane roads twice a day to get to and from work.
Randy walks up the sloping drive to the house, past his Ford 250 loaded with a ladder, wrenches, gas cans, rope, and an all-terrain vehicle that could get him back up here if he has to evacuate but finds the road to Howell Mountain blocked. Houses lost to fire often don’t have to be. A person on the scene can preserve them, but it’s risky. On Randy’s back seat is a lemon-yellow flame-resistant fire suit, a helmet, and a gas mask.
Next on the to-do list is the cleaning of the house’s gutters, which are full of fir needles lofted there by wind the day before. The roof is metal, but an ember in a gutter can burn down even a concrete house if conditions are right—and the Dunns’ house is made of wood. He drives the forklift up to the back door as a tethering point and fetches a climbing rope for belaying.
His son-in-law, Brian, has showed up to help, and Randy presses both of us into service: Brian is the gutter man, and I’m the belayer. Wearing aviator shades and shorts, Brian clambers up the ladder, dons the safely harness, and applies the furious leaf-blower, walking crabwise with one hand on the rope down to the far edge of the roof. He’s a professional firefighter in Sonoma County, and he will have to go back there before day’s end.
We then clean the gutters at the winery office, a house built in the 19th century by Italians who used the cellar for winemaking. A full century later, Randy Dunn would use it, too, climbing over casks on a dirt floor, employing a tool called a wine thief to draw long vials of cabernet from bungholes into antique glasses, raising them speculatively to his nose. The house had belonged then to Charlie Wagner, owner of Caymus Vineyards, down the mountain. Warren Winiarski, winner of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also had lived there with his wife, Barbara, and their small children, in what was then deemed a backwater unsuitable for grapes, being too far removed from the vaunted valley floor. Now this land is as sought after by potential growers as any terroir in Napa. The old viticulturists’ redwood stakes are still sometimes found in the woods.
Randy made Charlie Wagner’s wine for him in the 1970s and ’80s. In those days, Randy looked a lot like Robert Redford—same beard, same abundant strawberry blond hair. Charlie allowed Randy to press his own grapes at Caymus and bring the juice back up to White Cottage Road, where it was transformed into the first versions of what would become the distinctive, surprisingly successful Dunn cabernet sauvignon. The praise it received then was the beginning of Dunn cabernet’s steep critical climb, and he and Lori soon bought the house.
In Randy’s early days of ownership, the house had swaybacked floors, streaked walls, and Victorian sash windows with wavy glass. After he and Lori built their own rancher next door, this place stood empty. One night a mountain lion saw the moon’s reflection in a window and leapt through. The next morning, Randy found shattered glass, the curtains in shreds, and a single drop of blood on the floor, shed before the big cat leapt through another window and was gone.
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