Storybook Mountain: Fire Destroyed Its Wine Library. Then Something Good Happened

We were at the final dinner of the 2024 Wine Writers Symposium in Napa recently when we met Jerry Seps, pioneering founder and winemaker of much-awarded Storybook Mountain Vineyards Winery, north of Calistoga. We thanked him for his work in ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, which has kept one of our favorite grapes and early loves in the public eye for decades.

When John told Seps, 86, that we were long-time fans of Storybook’s elegant Zinfandels, and still had labels going back to the ’80s, Seps, who was wearing a cowboy hat, asked us a question we had never gotten from a winemaker: “Do you still have older vintages?” We responded, sadly, that we had enjoyed our oldest years ago.

(John and Dottie with Jerry Seps)

What he told us next made us feel anew a humbling gratitude for the power of wine to bind people, even after sorrowful losses, with a heartfelt twist we never saw coming.

Seps told us that at around 10 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, he looked out from his home on the winery property and saw flames on nearby Tubbs Lane off Highway 128. The Tubbs Fire, which would take days to contain, swept across Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, killing 22 people, destroying or damaging about 6,000 structures, most of them homes, and burning about 36,810 acres.

“At first, I thought it was a house on fire. Then it got more intense,” he told us. Familiar with how the geography and wind could direct the blaze, Seps set about trying to save his family, their homes and the winery he and his wife Sigrid had founded in 1976. Seps roused his daughter, Colleen, who also lives on the property and is his assistant winemaker, and she packed up and left with her daughter and Sigrid, 82, and three of the family’s dogs. Seps told arriving firefighters and first responders that they should check on a disabled neighbor, but it turned out he had already left to safety. Seps also told them they could use the water in his pool to refill their tanks and they did.

Then, when the fire started marching toward Storybook from two directions, Seps took the advice of firefighters and packed up precious things like photo albums and some of Sigrid’s art, and left at about 3 a.m. He slept in his car, at a safe distance.

When he returned around three hours later, he found flames licking the winery’s south side door frame and put it out using a fire extinguisher stowed in one of the property’s caves, which were dug by Chinese workers more than 130 years ago. “Every window on one side of the winery was cracked. The firemen said in five more minutes, the winery would have been gone,” Seps told us.

But as he and firefighters worked to save Colleen’s house, the fire changed direction and engulfed a metal shed Seps used as a shop. He had built an insulated, refrigerated area in a corner of it to store Storybook’s library wines. The fire destroyed the winery’s entire library of wines, about 300 cases from the 1980 vintage to the 2012. The photograph is heartbreaking. However, compared to others who lost so much more, Seps wasn’t one to complain. Cal Fire fighters, first responders and he had saved the homes and the winery. Only two acres of vines were lost.

When Jerry and Sigrid Seps purchased the 90-acre red volcanic and loam property that they named Storybook Mountain Vineyard and farm  organically, it had lain fallow since a previous winery had burned to the ground, its vineyards destroyed, in the 1964 Hanly Ranch Fire (also sometimes spelled Hanley and Henley). The property had a storied history. Zinfandel been grown there since the 1880s, Seps told us. Two German brothers, Adam and Jacob Grimm – yes, the Brothers Grimm, but different ones -- operated Grimm Vineyards and Wine Vaults and had the caves dug. The Grimm family had made wine in Germany since the mid 1500s and continues to do so today, Seps, a former professor of European history, told us.

After the Grimms’ ownership, during which the property was rescued from another fire, the winery’s ownership turned over twice before the Hanly fire. Most of the stately redwoods that stand all around the property today survived that fire. “They’ve been through a couple of fires, including a big fire that burned through here in 1964, the Hanly fire,” Seps told us of the redwoods. “It burned down the winery that was here and burned down the vineyard so that when we got the property, there was basically nothing on it except the caves that were dug by the Chinese.”

Dottie has met a few men who insist that their wives are the ones who pursued them. When we asked how Seps and Sigrid had met, he fell in line there. “When I was a professor down in southern California, professors don’t make a lot of money so I also worked at a real estate agency and she worked there as well. I accuse her of moving her desk next to mine,” he related with a chuckle. After they married and started a family, they fell in love with the hilly property on the Mayacamus Mountain Range that cleaves Napa and Sonoma counties and looks out onto Mount St. Helena. They didn’t know anything about growing grapes and making wine so they consulted people who did, Seps said.

(Sigrid and Jerry Seps and granddaughters Serina and Sofia.)

“The property was abandoned, so we did a lot of analysis of the soil, the climate, the exposure. We decided it had to be red wine. Then we were kind of torn between varieties. So we talked to people all over the valley about varieties. I remember sitting at the table with Joe and Alice Heitz discussing what went where well in the Valley. Finally, André Tchelistcheff said, ‘There’s no better place than the volcanic soils above Calistoga to plant Zinfandel.’ So it fit everything else so we decided let’s do it,” Seps said. They made only Zinfandel for a couple decades, adding other varieties later. The name, Storybook, is a hat tip to the other Brothers Grimm. Over time, they purchased more land so that now they have 120 acres, 43 of them planted to grapes. Seps has separated those 43 acres into 108 “unique blocks,” he explained, with clones that tend toward raspberry and blackberry flavors and vines that “have the ability to mature the grapes on them fully and ripely.” The winery produces 4,000 to 5,000 cases annually, 80 percent Zinfandel.

After the Tubbs Fire, Josh Greene, publisher and editor of Wine & Spirits, who has known Seps a long time and tasted many of the lost wines, read about the library wines and the damage and wrote to ask Seps if he could use some volunteer labor. “I was headed out within a month, and, after a little gentle cajoling, he allowed as how we might tie some vines on an early November afternoon,” Greene wrote in a moving account of his visit to Storybook.

“Josh called me several times to see if he could come and help and he actually came up and spent a day in the vineyard with me to help out after the fire. I just didn’t believe it. It was just a wonderful thing,” Seps recalled.

Then something unexpected happened.

Within days of Greene’s piece, “Storybook on Fire,” a fan in Florida mailed Seps a bottle of one of the lost vintages. Seps doesn’t remember which year it was. “It was a complete surprise. It was a very emotional time,” he explained.

Then more bottles started coming back, many of them from fans who Seps didn’t know personally. “It began basically in December of that year. It was an early Christmas present. Another and another would show up and a couple of our collectors here in California came up and delivered some of them,” Seps told us.

Now, fans of Storybook wines have returned to the winery every vintage that was lost except the 1981 – and that’s a shame, Seps told us when we first met him, because “it’s my wife's favorite.”

Most accounts of the winery’s history state that its first release, in 1983, was a 1980 Zinfandel and it took a gold medal. But the winery’s actual first release was the 1981, Seps told us. “That’s why it’s Sigrid’s favorite vintage. We released it ahead of the 1980 because it was more resolved, a little softer, a more complete wine at the time. It took the ’80 a little bit longer to come around. It did come around.”

When we returned to Manhattan after meeting Seps, we looked through our notes and found we had the 1983 and 1984 not long after they were made.

What do you suppose the odds are that any of the 1981 is still out there, we asked Seps. “It might be. It wasn’t a huge vintage because we were just starting out and it was drinking well early on,” he said. “So it might have all been consumed.”

Maybe not. If you find this unicorn somewhere in your cellar, Jerry Seps would love to hear from you.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010. Dorothy and John have been tasting and studying wine since 1973. In 2020, the University of California at Davis added their papers to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection in its library, which also includes the work of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. Dottie has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and at The Journal. John was Page One Editor of The Journal, City Editor of The Miami Herald and a senior editor at Bloomberg News. They are well-known from their books and many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual, international "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck. They have two daughters.

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