Survivor stories from The Great Wine Fires of 2017 as told to The Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco

Gemma Kochis
Director of Hospitality
Inglenook Winery


How it happened
We were in bed on the night of Sunday the 8th when a neighbor called to warn, “Dry Creek Valley is on fire!” It was actually the Atlas Peak fire, but with winds exceeding 60MPH, we were more concerned about the Partrick fire, which looked to be heading our way. We finally decided to evacuate around 2.00 AM, not because of an evacuation order, but because our neighbors were leaving and because of the growing concern that downed trees would block our exit. We drove to an abandoned restaurant at the bottom of the Oakville Grade and hung out in the parking lot with other evacuees—my husband Dorian, me, two dogs and a cat. At that point, we thought we had escaped the worst and would return to our home as we left it. We slept the remainder of the night in the car, and then at 6.30 AM began the odyssey of billeting with friends in Napa, then St. Helena, until we could determine the fate of our home.  It took a couple of days before we learned that it had been completely destroyed.

The loss
Our home was located on Mt. Veeder Road. It burned to the foundation, with only the chimney left standing, but our tomato garden survived unscathed! We were insured and will rebuild. The insurer has asked for an itemized spreadsheet of all contents, which is like trying to reconstruct your life on a granular level—from memory. I wish I’d photographed the contents of the house as you’re advised to do. In the end, I know we’ll end up out-of-pocket. For instance, I lost 25 cases of valuable wine. How do you remember 300 labels and vintages when all the records have been destroyed?

I’m a bit of an “accumulator”, a collector, and a total sentimentalist. Our house was curated with lifetime memories and love. Every tchotchke, and there were many, held a special significance. 90% of them were lost. That’s what hurts the most.

With lights flickering, we packed in a panic, at random, and without any direction other than what we eyeballed as we went. When I look back, I can see no rhyme nor reason to the selection—photo albums, art, rugs, jewelry, some clothing, including two business suits, prized Christmas ornaments, even my copious wine notes and Sommelier certification —enough to fill our cars. In moments of calm reflection, I remember the treasured items we forgot—Dorian’s jewelry box with his grandfather’s watch and cuff links, my mom’s jewelry, a painting of my father, computer hard drives, vintage 60’s Barbie Dolls, heirloom quilts—the list goes on and on.
Our current situation
We now have a rental home with newly-rented furniture, cutlery, linens, etc. Friends gave us clothing, and Target was the source of everything else. It’s kind of a strange feeling—like being a refugee. Or living permanently in a hotel. I finally went back to work on the 25th and that’s helped me remain sane.

My state of mind
I’ve cried at strange moments; when a complete stranger gave us a $200 gift card; when a restaurant comped our meals; when the rental furniture arrived, and I had no idea where anything should go; when we had to submit to the insurance rep’s recorded 7-hour forensic questioning.  It felt clinical, like we were being interrogated, and we felt gutted—like the walking dead. It was as if they were asking us to put a price on our lives.

Going forward
We’ll make it in the long run.  We have our jobs; we have enough bridging insurance money for immediate living expenses; and we have a home, albeit temporary. But the fears never subside—that the insurance company won’t make good; that the hassle of rebuilding will be the stuff of nightmares; that we’ll be a burden to others. And even though we’re in the hospitality business, it’s hard, almost alien, to accept charity. Then there’s the very palpable survivor’s guilt that constantly reminds us that there are others in far worse condition, who have nothing. So, I feel I have no right to cry.

We choose to move forward and remain positive.  We are smiling in the photograph because we know we are lucky — and we have the tools to survive and rebuild. We are overwhelmed with the amazing support of our friends, colleagues, and community – this is what is getting us through.  Now, we have an opportunity for a clean start where we can simplify our lives and shuck the baggage … tchotchkes included.
How can we help?
Ultimately, this is a story of personal tragedy—not just a matter of statistic’s (6000 buildings lost), but one that affects flesh-and-blood victims. This will become increasingly important as the Great Wine Fires of 2017 recede from the headlines and memories fade. That’s when the victims will most need our help.

Campaigns to support individuals in need can be found at Use search term “Napa and Sonoma Fires”

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