Hollywood Exec-Turned-Vintner on Napa Wildfire Recovery: "Everyone Has Been Pitching In"

Lisa Sze Photography
Rich Frank

Former Disney Studios president Rich Frank, who now owns a Napa winery, reveals how communities in Northern California are coming together to heal after the October wildfires.

Rich Frank and his wife, Leslie, were on a cruise in Spain with their wine club members when they started receiving fire notices from the Sheriff back in Napa, California. "People couldn’t reach each other, the electricity went out back there, people were scrambling like crazy," recalls the former Disney Studios president, who left that role in 1994 to start Frank Family Vineyards (Pink and Usher have visited). The wildfires began on Oct. 8, ripping through eight counties including Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, killing 41 and destroying at least 8,400 homes and buildings while burning through 245,000 acres, according to state officials. KTLA reported that preliminary damage estimates for the counties combined will exceed $3 billion. 

With no damage to any of his vineyards across Napa, nor to their family home in Rutherford, Frank — who moved to the area full-time earlier this year — allows, "We were one of the lucky ones." While much of Napa was left relatively intact, Sonoma County was a different story. One of the Frank Family employees living in Santa Rosa had their home destroyed, 47 wineries reported damages of varying degree and Signorello Vineyard on Silverado Trail burned to the ground.

The good news? Says Frank: "The industry had basically harvested about 85 percent of our grapes," including those used for lighter blends like pinot noir and chardonnay, while the thicker-skinned (and therefore most protected) grapes used for cabernet sauvignon remained on vines. Horticulturists and farming experts will soon know if the soil will be tainted for future harvests — unlikely, though, since most vineyard land is ripe with volcanic soil, specifically in northern Napa Valley — as well as what, if anything, happened chemically inside the fruit from smoke and heat exposure. Oenophiles will have to wait until about six weeks after fermentation to see if the fires affected the grapes' flavor. According to Frank, "Any grapes picked after the fire are being made separately, and everybody will taste those over the next couple of months and if they are fine we will blend them in and if they aren’t we will get rid of them."

One known after-effect has been the decline in tourism; the Napa Valley Vintners Association confirms business has slowed, but it's working with Visit Napa Valley and Visit California to spread the word that the wine country is back open for business. "There has probably never been a better time to come than right now," says Frank. "You get into every place and restaurant and everything is functioning — in many places you wouldn’t even know there was a fire." The Napa Valley Film Festival went off without a hitch in early November, drawing Will Ferrell, Nikki Reed and Ian Somerhalder for appearances and donating 10 percent of festival pass revenue to the Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund. 

Frank is confident tourism will pick up again in the area he describes as a "real close family community." And with relief efforts including concerts benefiting disaster funds, local wineries donating proceeds from their tasting rooms and dinners for first responders happening regularly, the area is beginning to bounce back. Adds Frank: “Everyone has been pitching in and helping.” 

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.