Founder Jim Bernau posted an invitation on Facebook this past weekend offering work, housing and food for three weeks for some of those displaced by the fires that raged through California’s wine country.
At least 41 people have been confirmed dead in the region, which includes Napa and Sonoma counties, and more than 6,700 homes and businesses have been wiped out.
One example, the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, was completely destroyed, so its human resources director turned to Facebook to help the Santa Rosa hotel's 130 employees — from dishwashers to the concierge — find new jobs.
While most wineries were spared, The Mercury News in San Jose reports that 22 wineries, vineyards or wine stock were damaged or destroyed. Many winemakers are just learning the extent of the damage now that some evacuation orders have been lifted and they can return to their estates.
Some 500 miles to the north, in the heart of Oregon’s wine country, Bernau is trying to lend a hand.
“There are many, many people working hard to help," he said. "Oftentimes, one of the greatest gifts we can give to help them overcome grief and loss is to give them productive work.
"I think you'll probably see a lot of this, people opening up their homes and their businesses to help out.”
Sixty wineries, including Willamette Valley Vineyards, are scheduled to participate in a fundraiser Sunday, Oct. 22, at The Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg. Oregon Cares Disaster Relief for California will benefit three community funds that have been established in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
Fall is the busiest time of year for production at Willamette Valley Vineyards, nestled in the South Salem hills alongside Interstate 5. Its employees are wrapping up the harvest, and the wine-making process is just underway. Bottling won't begin until around January.
“We're not like these big California wineries,” Bernau said. “We do all of this by hand, and there are a lot of very talented people down there who don't have a place to work.”
He said he would have them doing everything from punching down to helping transfer wine from the fermenters into the press and from the press into the barrel.
Punching down is done during the fermentation process, using a device that looks like a huge potato masher to push the solids that have risen to the surface — skins, seeds, and stems — back down into the wine. It's important to break up the “cap” a few times a day to increase the extraction of color and flavor and prevent bacteria.
Willamette Valley has three estate vineyards, the one in the South Salem hills, Tualatin Estate in Forest Grove, and Elton in the Eola-Amity hills. It also collaborates with a handful of other vineyards.
In addition to temporary employment, Bernau also is offering housing and food.
“I don't know if people fully understand how dire this situation is for these people,” Bernau said. He's been in contact with Kunde Family Winery owner Jeff Kunde, who thanks to a large generator did not lose power like other wineries, but whose family has been living in the tasting room since being evacuated from their home.
Bernau said he and his wife, Jan, could put up at least two people in the two-bedroom, two-bathroom guest quarters of their home, which is perched above the 110-acre estate with 65 acres planted in vines. The guest quarters include a living room and kitchen.
Willamette Valley Vineyards also has two guest suites, if available, that could be used. Volunteers in the community are stepping forward, too, after seeing Bernau’s post.
Claudia Vorse, former executive assistant to Bernau, has offered the use of two guest rooms in her Salem home near Bush’s Pasture Park.
She has a personal connection to the Napa area, where she vacations at least twice a year. She posted a photo on her Facebook page of a row of wine bottles with affected California labels, as a tribute to all of her friends there.
Vorse wasn’t surprised to see Bernau’s offer.
“What a wonderful, beautiful thing for him to do,” she said. “Imagine being one of the displaced, your world has been shattered, and somebody is giving you a place to stay, food and a job, something you already know how to do. Think about the dignity and the hope and the respect that gives a person.
“I don’t know how to fight fires or clean up, but I can house people.”
If more housing is needed, Bernau said local bed and breakfasts and hotels would provide other options.
“We have no doubt we’ll be able to secure housing to keep our promise,” he said.
Bernau would turn to Willamette Valley Vineyards chef DJ MacIntyre to feed the workers.
“We have a wonderful kitchen and chef here,” Bernau said. “We feed our harvest employees during the day, and he loves cooking for the cellar crew.”
Fewer than a dozen cellar workers are employed year-round by Willamette Valley Vineyards, but this time of year that number increases.
Bernau’s Facebook followers described his offer as kind, generous, thoughtful and classy.
“You’ve proven that human decency exists at a time we need examples of it,” one posted. “That’s why I love Willamette Valley and all of Oregon,” posted another.
Randy Hillyer, who has worked as facilities manager at Willamette Valley Vineyards for 10 years, was touched by his boss’ gesture.
“When I saw that, it almost brought tears to my eyes. He is a very caring and giving man,” Hillyer said, recalling the time he had pneumonia, was just out of the hospital, and Jim and Jan were the first to show up at his house with flowers. “I could tell you hundreds of stories like that.”
Although it's still early, Bernau already has heard from two workers in California interested in his offer.
“Forward This” appears Wednesdays and Sundays and highlights the people, places, and organizations of the Mid-Willamette Valley. Contact Capi Lynn at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her the rest of the week on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.