San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

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By Vicky Boyd

Craig Ledbetter said he wasn't overly surprised by the overwhelming amount of supplies donated by San Joaquin County agriculture – and particularly the area's winegrape industry – for North Coast fire victims. After all, most people in the California wine industry know each other through business dealings or from meeting at the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. And they want to help out colleagues.

What really amazed Ledbetter, vice president and a partner in Vino Farms LLC of Lodi, was the generosity of people from as far away as Modesto and Sacramento who dropped off items for fire victims.

"Ag always seems to come through, and this is normal for Lodi," he said. "Lodi is one of the most philanthropic towns around. People in Lodi get it and they understand when there are people in need. Lodi will be there to help."

Ledbetter was joined by several other individuals and companies within San Joaquin County to donate, collect and transport supplies to the North Coast, where they were distributed to people who were evacuated or lost their homes. The effort was part of a much larger grassroots outpouring by California winegrape and vintners associations that carried the social media hashtag, #CAWineStrong. 

Both the Lodi Winegrape Commission and the Lodi District Grape Growers Association were among the 35 associations supporting the industrywide project.

"It just kind of grew, and the response has been just overwhelming to the point that the shelters in the affected areas were being inundated with so many donations that they were turning people away," said Bob Highfill, Lodi Winegrape Commission communications manager.

Instead, people were asked to donate gift cards, such as to Target or Walmart, or gas cards that fire victims could use to purchase necessities or gas for cars in which many have been living.

Many participating #CAWineStrong businesses planned to donate a portion of their sales during October to the Napa Valley Community Foundation's Disaster Relief Fund, the Community Foundation of Sonoma County's Resilience Fund or Community Foundation of Mendocino County Disaster Fund of Mendocino County. 

Lodi Vintners Tasting Room in Acampo, for example, pledged to donate all of its tasting room fees for the month to the relief effort.

The #CAWineStrong website also carried a link – https://www.youcaring.com/mendocinonapasonomacountyfirerelief-977973 – where people could make cash donations, which were to be split among the three relief groups.

In addition, #CAWineStrong acted as a clearinghouse to match vintners in need to those who could assist.

"Help the Northern California wine community with immediate ground-level support by listing any available resources you can provide to mitigate further damage to property, crops and product, as well as providing for the safety and shelter of those in need," according to the email from the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

Highfill said many of the arrangements were made person to person and didn't go through the clearinghouse. But he knew that Lange Twins Family Winery of Acampo helped the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which had a load of Lodi cabernet it couldn't deliver to its Geyserville winery.

Ledbetter credited his 4 1/2-year-old son, Chase, for inspiring his donation collection campaign.

"I was at work thinking and struggling, thinking about the friends and family we have over there," Ledbetter said. "A lot of them were evacuated whether they lost their home or not."

On top of it, Vino Farms has about 6,500 acres of vineyards and 600 employees in Napa and Sonoma counties. Ledbetter said fortunately all of their employees are accounted for, but some did lose their homes. 

Watching television news with Chase, Craig was trying to answer the youngster's questions about the fire in a way the little boy would understand. "They don't have a home to go to," he told Chase. "They have no toys and they have no food. I was trying to make him understand."

When Chase started to pull out toys to give to the people displaced by the fire, Craig had his answer. His wife, Suzanne, helped promote the effort on social media, and it snowballed.

Other wineries stepped in to donate supplies. Harney Lane Winery & Vineyards of Lodi, for example, donated a couple pallets of water and a pallet of instant oatmeal.

Lange Twins Family Winery and Vineyards volunteered the use of a semi-truck to haul the supplies to the Double Tree at Rohnert Park, where they were distributed.

Ledbetter's cousin, Marisa Manna Ferrel, owner of the So-Eventful event planning company in Healdsburg, helped coordinate deliveries with the shelter.

Taylor Kininmonth of Sip Shuttle – Lodi Wine Tour also got inspiration from watching TV news coverage of the fires. Shortly after the blazes started, she made a video about how she wanted to fill her 15-passenger tour van with supplies for the fire victims. Kininmonth posted it on social media, where she said it received more than 9,000 views.

She also enlisted the help of several partner wineries to act as drop-off points for supplies. They included Klinker Brick Winery, Jessie's Grove Winery, Van Ruiten Family Winery, Scott's Wine & Cider and Group Therapy Tasting Room.

The response went viral, and Kininmonth said people donated more than two semi-truck's worth of items. 

Elite Wine Shipping & Storage, as well as Morada Produce Co., each volunteered a large truck to transport the supplies to Napa and Sonoma. "It was really awesome how many people really stepped up, and obviously, I was expecting something a lot smaller than this," she said. "It was so overwhelming and so emotionally overwhelming."

As Ledbetter pointed out, the local donations are a good start, but rebuilding from the fires will be a long process.

"I don't think people realize the full extent of damage that's been done because it's like an atomic bomb was dropped over there in Santa Rosa," he said, adding he saw the destruction first hand. "It's devastating. This isn't going to take months to rebuild – it's going to take years to rebuild."

Ledbetter said he hoped to be part of continuing aid efforts in the future.