Atlas Peak Ashes and the Little Guy
November 06, 2017
“A bright orange glow flickered on the wall. Flames, I figured, it had to be flames,” said Philippe Langner, a small Napa grape grower and winemaker on top of Atlas Peak. “I could almost feel the heat on my face as I approached the window; fire was coming up the hill and fast.
“At first, I didn’t think I was in its path, but in short time, I could see it was closing in on me,” said Philippe. He grabbed some important papers and headed for his car. “By now, the flames were getting closer, so I drove down the hill to the highway, but when I got there I found an endless line of stopped cars.” Philippe raced back up the hill to check his house; it was starting to burn. “In the distance I could see my vineyards also in flames.”
As the fire closed in on him he grabbed a garden hose and began spraying his house in a last attempt, but in seconds the house was on fire. “I could see parts of the roof and siding starting to burn; fences and other buildings were catching fire in the high winds.” The fires were now so close that he could see smoke coming from his clothes, on the brink of catching on fire. “I threw down the hose - ‘I have to save myself.”
As flames blew past him, he hurried back to the highway to see traffic slowly beginning to move. He managed to slip in line. “Why were we stopped?” yelled Philippe to a nearby motorist. “A tree was blown down completely blocking traffic.” “Looks like they cleared it,” said another voice through the ominous black and orange haze ripping past him. He wiped the blackened sweat from his forehead and saw that the light in his rear view mirror was getting brighter; the fire was getting closer. To his relief, tires were getting louder, traffic was starting to move faster and faster; he was escaping. A kind of silent laugh came over him, “it was survival speaking; I was alive.”
“It was an odd feeling that came over me as I stood there watching the fires swirl and embers fly past me,” said Philippe in afterthought. “I wasn’t scared at all, I was out to fight – fight to save my house and vineyards. I’m told there’s a similar sensation that comes over men when in the height of battle,” says Philippe.
By way of the Congo, UC Davis, California; Rothchilds Chateau Clark in France, and Sullivan Family Vineyards, Napa, Philippe Langner was finally financially able to buy a 14 acre vineyard on Atlas Peak where he would further develop his fine wine style that he had been developing since 2004 when he “fell in love” with a small Coombsville vineyard. “Over the years I also made wines from Spring Mountain, Rutherford, Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain and other parts of the Napa Valley,” says Philippe. His work was finally paying off; his two brands were being endorsed by many as “among Napa’s best.”
Days later, Philippe was allowed to briefly survey the damage under police escort. In the distance, he could see the house and everything around it appeared to be burned to the ground. “In the vineyard, I saw burned vines, but it didn’t look like all were gone,” says Philippe.
Sadly, Philippe had only harvested 10 percent of his grapes.
Since then, a more thorough survey has been conducted. About two of his 14 acres were destroyed. The remaining grapes were scorched or dehydrated, which meant all unharvested grapes were lost to the fire. Fortunately, the small Coombsville acreage was not harmed, so Philippe will have a small amount of grapes to work with for 2017.
As for his house, office, and equipment, it’s all at ground-level, smothered in ash. “This includes watering pumps and storage buildings,” said Philippe. And, if the tragic losses from fires aren’t enough, Philippe has just learned that his insurance company may not cover the cost of rebuilding because of “certain technicalities.”
“There’s no time to look back and feel sorry for yourself,” says Philippe. He explained that with a lot of planting, salvaging and grafting he should be able to be back in full production by 2020.
Through it all, he got one bit of good post-fire-news; he received a 94 score from The Wine Advocate for his Hesperian 2015 Kitoko Vineyard, and, yes, that vintage did survive the devastating California fires of 2017.
For more on Philippe’s wines go to www.hesperianwines.com/