Wine Ink: A winemaker works to pick up the pieces after Northern California fires |

Wine Ink: A winemaker works to pick up the pieces after Northern California fires

It was hard to know what was going on behind the dark glasses that Dan Kosta wore as he inched slowly through the total rubble of his burned out home. But once he spoke, it became painfully obvious. "I guess I'm a little more emotional than I thought I would be," he mumbled quietly, almost apologetically, with a voice that trembled ever so slightly.

As one of the founders of the legendary Kosta Brown label, and currently a partner with the Emeril Lagasse family in Alden-Alli wines, Dan is an icon in global wine circles. And he is also a local boy, having grown up in Santa Rosa, just three short miles from the home he lost in the picture-perfect community with the epic view of the Russian River Valley.

He paused to pick up a teacup, one of the few if not the only recognizable object in the twisted mass of steel, nails and burned out drywall. "I was into tea," he shrugged as he gazed at the tiny cup in his hand.

It has been a little over five months since a series of wind-whipped fires tore through the counties of Sonoma and Napa, the epicenters of American wine. The destruction, however, is still vivid in many places, especially in the communities surrounding Santa Rosa where Dan lived/lives.

The morning I climbed into Dan's pickup truck to get a first-hand look at just how devastating the fires had been, he had an appointment to meet his friend, Dustin, the owner of the Santa Rosa-based demolition company that has worked non-stop since the October night when so many homes, including his own, were lost. Dustin was there to start the two-week job of demolition, scraping and clearing what remained of Dan's former showcase home. All around you could see the sites of neighboring homes that had also been lost in the fires.

"There are three types of people," Dustin said when I asked how his clients are fairing. As one who lost his home and has already cleared 70-plus housing sites, he was uniquely qualified to answer the question. "First there are those who want everything done yesterday, they want to rebuild the same house in the same place. They just want their lives back," he paused. "Of course that is impossible."

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"Then there are those like Dan and myself who want to take a little time. We want to see how the trees and the landscape come back. See how our families are doing and then make a decision. It's still pretty fresh." He continued with a touch of angst, "But the worst are those who are still in shock. I have had clients who can't make a decision. Still can't even relate to what happened. Those are the ones that are the hardest."

The Tubbs fire, as it is called because it first flared near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga on the Napa side of the mountains, is officially the most destructive fire in California history. 4,655 homes, many belonging to wine country workers, were totally destroyed.

Still, Dan considers himself one of the lucky ones. "It could have been tragic," he recalls. Dan had just gone to bed on Sunday night the fire flared. "My three kids were upstairs asleep and it was in the middle of harvest, so I was ready for a big week." A neighbor pounded on his door just before midnight, waking him and telling him they had to evacuate. Now. "We went outside and you could see the ridge just across the way was in flames. The wind was just insane." He went back in his home for the last time, grabbed his kids, got into the pickup truck and headed down the winding road, stopping to see if neighbors had heard the word.

The family left with nothing and Dan spent the next couple of days helping out chef Guy Fieri make meals for the firefighters. "Once my kids were safe I just needed something to do to help. Even if it was just chopping onions and making salads for these guys," he explained.

Today, gregarious and upbeat, Dan looks toward the future. "It brought a lot of perspective," he says about the loss. "It's just stuff. I've become a better father, and I have a great new venture. I have really never been happier. I am one of the lucky ones."

While the loss and uncertainty for so many remain in both Sonoma and Napa, what was clear during my visit is that the beauty of both regions endures. If you are a wine-lover there has never been a better time, a more important time, to visit.

You'll be welcomed with open arms and generous toasts.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at