Fires burned the legacy of California's historic 'wine king.' This winery wants to rebuild it.
Paradise Ridge Winery hosted an exhibit honoring renowned winemaker Kanaye Nagasawa, one of the first people of Japanese descent to immigrate to the U.S.
Paradise Ridge Winery burned down in the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, California. The winery housed an exhibit to Kanaye Nagasawa, one of the first people of Japanese descent to immigrate to the U.S. and a renowned winemaker.Deanne Fitzmaurice / for NBC News
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SAN FRANCISCO — Sonia Byck-Barwick couldn’t fall asleep. It was a windy October night, and the electricity in her home in Northern California’s wine country flickered.
Sometime after 1 a.m., the facilities manager at Paradise Ridge Winery, which she co-owns with her father and siblings, called. A fire was approaching the winery, he reported, and Byck-Barwick’s husband, the winemaker, attempted to drive to the property. There’s fire everywhere, he said in a phone call from the road.
Some people feel it should be rebuilt. There’s a number of people on the side that says you don’t necessarily recreate or rebuild something of historic nature unless you can do it in an exacting way.
Still, she held out hope. “We still had hope because our buildings were made out of stucco and had tile roofs. And, you know, you always have hope, right? You try to have hope,” Byck-Barwick said.
Among its casualties were the last vestiges of the historic Fountaingrove Winery, pioneered by Kanaye Nagasawa, one of the first Japanese immigrants to America.
The Round Barn, an iconic landmark that was built on Fountaingrove in 1889, burned to the ground. Also gone: the buildings of the adjacent Paradise Ridge Winery, which had housed an exhibit about Nagasawa, who had been known in his time as the “Wine King” of California both locally and in his native Kagoshima.
Nagasawa, originally named Hikosuke Isonaga, was the son of a samurai and left Japan in 1865 when he was 13 to study science in Scotland, according to the History Museum of Sonoma County and the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco.
He was among a group of 15 young men smuggled out of Japan — during a time when leaving the country was forbidden — by the leader of the Satsuma clan, one of the clans credited with modernizing the country. Nagasawa was the youngest of the group.
While abroad, Nagasawa met Thomas Lake Harris, a charismatic religious leader. When the Satsuma clan could no longer afford to support the education of the young men, Harris offered to pay for them.
Most of the Japanese cohort returned home, but Nagasawa and a few others followed Harris to New York, becoming some of the first Japanese to arrive in the United States. Nagasawa lived with Harris and his group, the Brotherhood of New Life, in Brocton, New York, and also attended classes at Cornell University in Ithaca.
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In 1875, when he was 22, Nagasawa and three others followed Harris to Santa Rosa, California, where Harris established Fountaingrove, a socialist-spiritualist utopian colony. Harris tasked Nagasawa with cultivating grapes.
It became one of the state’s largest wineries and by 1888, the winery produced more than 200,000 gallons of wine annually, much of it sold in New York City, area historian Gaye LeBaron has written. Eventually, the utopian community disbanded and Harris returned to New York, leaving the entire estate — about 2,000 acres — to Nagasawa.
Nagasawa hosted lavish parties at his large home, entertaining local dignitaries, celebrities, and Japanese embassy officials. His guests included Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, according to the Japanese consulate, and he is credited with introducing California wines to England, Europe, and Japan.
“He became fairly respected because of his knowledge of wine,” Eric Stanley, curator of history at the Museums of Sonoma County, which presented an exhibit on Nagasawa in 2015, said. “He was one of the panel of wine judges at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.”
In 1934, Nagasawa died, but his family could not inherit his estate due to the California Alien Land Law, which targeted Japanese immigrants and prohibited them from owning land. Although Nagasawa left a portion of the property to his grandnephew, an American citizen, the court did not allow it because he was underage, according to Amy Mori, Nagasawa’s grandniece. Ownership of the property was left in the hands of a non-Japanese trustee who confiscated and sold it.
Although Nagasawa’s relatives were to receive proceeds from the sale of the land, they received very little — $3,501.42, according to the History Museum of Sonoma County — while the trustee received a larger amount. Nagasawa’s heirs disputed the sum in court but lost the case. His family members were detained throughout World War II in incarceration camps.
“It was just a pittance. We literally lost everything,” Mori, 90, said. She was born on Fountaingrove and considered Nagasawa a grandfather figure.
“He loved his garden, and I remember just following him around,” Mori recalled. “He didn’t speak very much. He was a man of few words, but I was with him a lot, and I have fond memories of him. He was very kind to me.”
When Sonia Byck-Barwick’s parents purchased land in 1978 adjacent to where Fountaingrove had been located, they didn’t know this history. Paradise Ridge Winery opened in 1994. After a group called the Friends of Kagoshima contacted them, the Byck family created an exhibit about Fountaingrove and Nagasawa and dedicated a vineyard to him, which they make a chardonnay from.
They also began a friendship with Nagasawa’s family, who returned to the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II. The family provided artifacts for the exhibit.
“There were some things that were left, not an awful lot. My mother had put things in trunks and stored them some place during the war,” Mori said. Her family gave the items to the winery, “because we had no use for them and it would be nice for them to be preserved.”
The winery had just recreated the exhibit in the fall of 2016, collaborating with the Museums of Sonoma County to ensure that the artifacts — which included a brocade curtain from Fountaingrove, a tuxedo and other clothing belonging to Nagasawa, and a ceremonial samurai sword — were mounted professionally. They also used lumber and barrel staves salvaged from the original Fountaingrove winery building.
“The biggest sadness for me after the fire is that there’s no way to get any more wood from Fountaingrove or barrels. There’s no way to get the clothing or the curtains. Those are the things that are just devastating,” Byck-Barwick said.
Next door at Fountaingrove Inn, a 124-room luxury hotel, fire claimed everything except for a fountain, two wooden tables, and about a dozen chairs, according to the Los Angeles Times. The hotel property included the Round Barn, a 16-sided building with 28 horse stalls.
Justin Hayman, the general manager of Fountaingrove Inn, says the owners of the hotel had been planning to renovate the barn and turn it into an event space. Now, he’s not sure what they’ll do, especially since they’re just at the beginning of the insurance claims process.
“The Round Barn was so unique and it’s a whole other animal. So there’s really no plans or intentions in place for it just yet,” he said.
Eric Stanley, the museum curator, says community members have been discussing the site of the Round Barn.
“Some people feel it should be rebuilt. There’s a number of people on the side that says you don’t necessarily recreate or rebuild something of historic nature unless you can do it in an exacting way,” he said. “There’s even some discussion that maybe that site of the Round Barn could someday become a memorial.”
As for the exhibit at Paradise Ridge Winery, Byck-Barwick says that while she felt too disheartened at first by what the fire destroyed to recreate it, she is now committed to rebuilding it. “This is what we want: to keep history alive,” she said. She’s holding out hope that during debris removal, they’ll find Nagasawa’s sword.
She figures it was forged by fire, and so, hopefully, it survived the fire.