SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA – Gingerly stepping over melted bottles and charred debris that was once Paradise Ridge Winery’s tasting room and event hall, owners Sonia Byck-Barwick and her brother Rene Byck searched for a samurai sword in the rubble left after one of the worst wildfires in California’s history swept the area.
For the past 23 years, the building housed an exhibit on the life of Kanae Nagasawa (1852-1934), a samurai who later became a successful winemaker and was dubbed the “Wine King” of California. The exhibit had been visited by people from all over the world.
The fires destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, including at least 13 wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties. At least 41 people lost their lives in the flames and hundreds remain missing. Accompanying the loss of life and property is the loss of history.
Nagasawa left his homeland for Britain in 1865, at the end of Japan’s feudal period, as part of a group of young Kyushu men hailing from Kagoshima. The group was sent by the Satsuma clan to pursue a Western education at a time when contact with the outside world was forbidden.
He did not return to Japan with his companions and eventually followed a religious leader, Thomas Lake Harris, to Santa Rosa to help him found a utopian community called Fountaingrove.
Nagasawa was tasked with cultivating grapes on the land, and is credited with introducing Californian wines to Europe and Japan. By the turn of the century, he was known as the “Wine King of Fountaingrove.”
He inherited the land after Harris passed away and lived there, taking over as leader of the religious cult until his own death in 1934.
“When my parents started the winery, his legacy wasn’t recognized anywhere,” said Byck-Barwick, 49. “The original exhibit went up within six months of opening the winery (in 1994). A group called Friends of Kagoshima got in touch with my parents, and they thought we were the closest thing to a memorial for Nagasawa. From then on, my parents knew that they wanted to keep the history alive.”
Byck-Barwick said the exhibit “actually brought the Nagasawa family back to the area. They had been interned during the war and had lost everything. So this area was a place of sorrow for them, until my parents resurrected this winery.”
She added that her family became close to the relatives of Nagasawa over the years. Her brother even accompanied Nagasawa’s grand-niece, Amy Mori, to Japan for the opening of the Satsuma Students Museum in Kagoshima Prefecture. The museum commemorates the lives of 19 men, including Nagasawa, who were selected to study abroad by the Satsuma clan.
In 2016, Byck-Barwick updated the exhibit, placing artifacts that had been donated by relatives of Nagasawa into glass cases and using wood from the original Fountaingrove winery on the wall where the objects were displayed.
“The exhibit had explanations in both Japanese and English,” she said. “We’ve been part of a lot of documentaries that have happened because of the connection that my parents created. We’ve had a lot of visitors from Japan,” she said.
“The photos we can replace, but what we can’t replace were things like his tuxedo for when he entertained people, and we also had a hakama (traditional Japanese trousers) of his. His family had also given us a sword of his — it was a practice sword, not an elaborate sword.”
Byck-Barwick said they also “had a glass set of condiment containers from his dining room table, some of the awards he had been given by different people, and a curtain from Fountaingrove, which was a beautiful piece of cloth that was over 100 years old.”
Just down the road from the entrance to Paradise Ridge, within eyesight of the 101 freeway, stood a round wooden barn that had become a Santa Rosa landmark. Built in 1899 under the direction of Nagasawa, it was one of the last remaining original Fountaingrove structures. The fires claimed it along with two adjacent hotels and a mobile home park for seniors called Journey’s End across the street, where at least three bodies have been found.
Paradise Ridge’s wine-making facility was also destroyed in the inferno. Blackened wooden barrels are now piled among charred vats and bent steel. The acrid smell of this year’s entire vintage hung in the still smoky air.
Having lost so much, Byck-Barwick doubts she will rebuild the Nagasawa exhibit.
“I don’t see us rebuilding. It won’t be the same, because the items, the things that we had were something more tangible. I don’t think simply putting up photos is enough.
“My father has the idea of making an exhibit about the ‘Great Fire of 2017’ or whatever it ends up being known as. He’d like to use that wall to show how Sonoma came back and rebuilt after the fire.”
Ten years ago, the city of Santa Rosa named a 13.2-hectare park the Nagasawa Community Park, in honor of its former resident. And amid the giant art sculptures and rows of grapevines that somehow escaped the fire on the grounds of Paradise Ridge still stands a wooden sign that reads “Nagasawa Vineyard.”
Although not the original Fountaingrove vineyard, the Byck family erected it to acknowledge the man who gave so much to the region. If Nagasawa’s sword is not found, the park and sign might be the last reminders of Santa Rosa’s samurai.
“We’re going to search through the debris eventually,” Byck-Barwick said. “Maybe the sword or something has survived. If we found something, that would be really amazing. Maybe that would be the reason I need, maybe it would give me the ‘oomph’ to make the exhibit happen again, because that would mean it really survived.”