Climate change has brought heat, drought, seasonal wildfires, and unseasonal winds to the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon. On September 8th, 2020, all four elements of the apocalypse came together in the Almeda fire, the worst in Oregon's history, which swept from Ashland through Talent and Phoenix to the edge of Medford, destroying 2,800 homes and 300 businesses but miraculously killing just three people.
Talent-born and Ashland-bred Clea Arthur, and her partner Brian Denner, lost their craft winery, tasting room, and a four-year inventory of wines – but not their home on a hill above the small town of Talent.
“We feel collective amazement and gratitude that more did not die in this densely populated area,” says Clea, expressing surprise to have climate change making such an impact where she lives. The fires began about seven years ago, became seasonal five years ago, and the drought arrived three years ago.
“It was a huge loss financially and hard loss emotionally as Brian put his blood, sweat and tears into every vintage he made,” Clea says of their loss. “We had just bottled some but never tasted it. Pretty heartbreaking. Cases and cases of wine, all gone.”
Brian built his career in wine making in the US, Chile, and New Zealand. He has specialised in low-tech and minimal intervention winemaking and chosen to keep his winery small and simple.
He adopted the Simple Machine label in 2010 and produced wines at small valley wineries making wines for a variety of customers. He and Clea rented a property in 2017, adapted it, and established the winery and tasting room which they bought a year before the fire.
During 2020 they had to navigate between climate change and the Covid pandemic. Due to the virus they initially had to close their tasting room but, two months before the fire took place, it reopened with chairs and tables outside on the patio.
Clea was at home when the fire started, Brian was at a shop across the road from the winery. Both evacuated to Ashland. “He was pretty convinced it was going to be catastrophic. I was still optimistic,” said Clea. No one knew if the wind was going to shift, so fire refugees had to identify emergency exits as they waited for the blaze to be extinquished.
Asked if they were ready to rebuild, Clea said: “It was a hard decision. Had it not been for everyone’s support and rallying round us” they might have gone elsewhere.
“The wine community came together to help out. This area feels like an old-fashioned farming community where everybody tries to help each other. Collaboration rather than competitiveness. It was pretty inspiring.
“We did not realise what help we needed. Harvest had started. We had to decide in 48 hours. We had to bring in grapes, find barrels. We did not want to give up. We lost 100 per cent of our equipment, everything had to be borrowed or donated.”
As soon as he learned what had happened at Simple Machine, Brian Gruber, founder and winemaker at Barrel 42, rang around growers who donated 25 tons (23 metric tonnes) of grapes, as well as wineries and barrel makers, which provided barrels, and Barrel 42 offered to make the wine.
Gruber told local media the story, which was picked up by wine publications, prompting suppliers of bottles and bottling plants to donate bottles and services. Brian Denner joined the Barrel 42 team for harvest, making his own and other wines.
“We made more wine in 2020 than ever before,” Clea said. All those who helped are listed on the first “After Fire” or AF bottles.
Simple Machine also suspended deliveries to wine club members and sold “futures” for their AF wines. “People from 22 US states bought into the scheme, even some who had never been in Oregon,” she said. “In six months they got bottles of wine. It has been a great success.”
After securing the required permits, Simple Machine rebuilt in 90 days using a firm specialising in wineries. As electricity had not been connected by harvest, they processed the first fruit with a generator. For 2021, they have transformed 16 tonnes of grapes into 1,000 cases of wine.
On October 13th, Simple Machine was among the first businesses in Talent to reopen. This time Simple Machine is in a new, professionally designed winery at the same location on fire-ravaged Route 99, where the tasting room has become a social centre for the local community.
Clea said they had briefly considered moving to Canada and opening a winery there as climate change is warming that country enough to grow grapes and make wine. But then fires began to devour Canada. “Oregon’s smoke goes to the US east coast. Climate change affects everyone.”