Falling ash from distant fires speckled the many animal trailers and cars of the attendees at the fifth-annual WineaPAWlooza auction.
The recent event was again held at the Gamble Family Vineyard in Oakville to support the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch (JARR), a nonprofit that seeks to end animal cruelty and overpopulation in the Napa Valley and beyond.
That evening, several fires were spreading in the surrounding counties. So all of the animal rescuers in attendance were on high alert, each of them ready to spring into action if called, as they had been during the 2017 Northern California fires. During last-year’s fires, they had provided food, supplies, medical and financial assistance, and resources for more than 500 animals, took in 25 horses and farm animals, and provided shelter for 50 dogs and cats.
“Without the efforts of organizations like Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch we’d not have saved as many animals as we did (during the fires),” said Claudia Sonder, a Napa doctor of veterinary medicine and the president of the Napa Community Animal Response Team (CART).
“This organization, led by Monica Stevens, has been a critical partner to help coordinate, improve and expand emergency services in and around Napa County. Couple that with JARR’s day-to-day operations to help animals, and they’ve quickly become a major force.”
Founded in 2014 by Stevens and her husband, David, JARR’s mission, always ambitious, has grown quickly. Fueled by over $5.5 million of support, the organization has grown beyond its original mission of providing spay and neuter, adoption and education programs. Beyond these services, they’ve recently purchased a non-kill 4-acre animal sanctuary in Carneros; opened Ella’s CatHouse and Catnip Bar in Napa, which is a cage-free adoption center for cats; and helped usher in reduced kill rates at Napa County animal-control centers. However, JARR’s role increasingly includes responding to evacuations during fires.
“People do not want to leave their animals behind during a fire, and so our emergency evacuation services help both the animals and their owners get out of harm’s way,” Stevens said. “Sadly, we’ve learned a lot over the last two years.”
Soon after the Lake County fires of 2016, JARR, in collaboration with other regional organizations, went to work to improve emergency response coordination and capabilities.
One finding was that more communication was needed between groups during an emergency and that special equipment and training were needed for both the animal-rescue staffs and also the firefighters, who were often not trained to deal with large animals.
“It’s not trivial to deal with any animal during an emergency situation, but make that animal a horse that can weigh over 1,000 pounds and you can see what a challenge that might be for a firefighter,” Sonder said. “JARR has provided a lot of support, training and new equipment to help deal with these challenges.”
With this year’s auction proceeds of $1.4 million, JARR intends to expand such training and equipment.
According to Stevens, since its inception JARR has rescued a total of more than 700 animals and spay/neutered thousands, including 1,000 throughout the Bay Area in the first six months of 2018. They have also recently purchased a $2.3 million, 4-plus-acre ranch in the Napa Valley’s Carneros area.
“We’ve been looking for the right place to build our forever home,” Stevens said. “And this one in Carneros is a wonderful location for the animals because it’s a little cooler down there and also it’s the gateway to the valley, which makes it an easy location for supporters, staff and visitors to get to.”
Eventually, Stevens hopes to break ground on an already-designed “campus” at the site. The building project will be led by locals Tim McDonald of Centric Construction and Howard Backen of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects. Although the purchased property had been used for animal boarding by the previous owners, JARR plans to build all new buildings, including a veterinary hospital, cage-free accommodations for animals, and a public center that will provide education and awareness programs.
Walking the walk
As a part of JARR’s commitment to animal welfare, they’ve typically served plant-based food at their auctions and events. This year has taken that to a new level with Chef Casey Thompson creating a selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
“This year, we wanted to make the food fun and approachable but also highlight how good plant-based foods can be,” Thompson said. “Monica wanted to include a Beyond Burger tonight, and so we made sliders that most people can’t even tell actually have no meat in them.”
The “meat” for the burgers was donated, as were the Model Bakery buns. Other dishes included meatless tacos, eggplant-based chips and queso, and many other items that were both delicious and also animal-friendly.
“We don’t want to get all preachy, but it’s fun to see how great plants can taste,” Stevens said. “Last night, we had an event donated by Single Thread (restaurant) and they made everything plant-based and it was mind-boggling just how amazing that food was.”
Stevens explained that it was not a hard decision to go primarily plant-based because, “How can we save animals and then turn around and eat them?”
With many fundraising events throughout the valley every year, WineaPAWlooza appears to be fast becoming the most sought-after invitation in the valley, based on comments from vintners, among others. Guests to this year’s pre-auction event ate a meal prepared by what the San Francisco Chronicle named the “restaurant of the year” in 2017, Single Thread. On the following day, attendees gathered at the Gamble ranch and were treated to a tasting from 50 local wineries, a live auction, food and live music. However, what most auction-goers seemed most eager for was the much-anticipated pet parade led by Rob Johnson and his pig, Mr. Moo.
“We’ve been doing this since it started, and Mr. Moo is a perfect example of why JARR is so important,” Johnson said. “He was bought by a family in San Francisco, but as he grew he became too big for their place and they had to give him up for adoption — lucky me!”
Following Mr. Moo was a series of adoptable dogs presented by animal-rights activist and television personality/sportscaster Bonnie-Jill Laflin, who urged the crowd to apply to adopt one of the dogs that night. One of them, Huston, had been found after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“We love to support all the efforts of JARR because animals play such an important role in our families and in our community,” Gamble said. “We recently adopted a dog from them and will pick him up in a couple of days. We feel fortunate to be involved. And we also feel fortunate to have found a wonderful new addition to our family.”
When asked what makes JARR worthy of such support, Gamble highlighted the energy and vision of the founders; the dedication of the volunteers and supporters; and the organization’s low overhead with “every dollar” going to the property, programs and operations.
As a part of the auction activities, guests tasted wines from some of the valley’s most exclusive wineries, including selections from Gamble’s own wines as well as Joseph Phelps, Bevan Cellars, Tor, Arkenstone, and Spottswoode. Attendees also had the opportunity to bid on items such as “Chicks and Brix” a lunch at Staglin Family Vineyard with nine “Female Vintners and Winemakers,” including Helen Keplinger.
Keplinger said she donated her wine and time because, “There’s no other auction like this that focuses on helping animals at this level. All our pets at home are rescues, but we can’t adopt 100 animals. However, JARR can.”
In little more than four years, JARR has become a model organization through the region and beyond as representing a well-run and effective animal-welfare nonprofit. Stevens, who is also co-owner of 750 Wines, a luxury wine retailer, points to the volunteers and community as the drivers of the success.
But others point to her tireless animal advocacy, not taking any pay for her efforts and creating both the vision and the framework for success. Mention these things to Stevens and she waves them off.
“We are working together for a shared goal and I am grateful to be a part,” she said. And then she’s right back to business.
“The dollars from this year’s event are earmarked for the implementation of nine necessary programs,” she said. “Also, these funds go to spearheading disaster preparedness, response and relief for animals, providing solutions throughout Napa Valley and the Bay Area.”
Stevens paused for a moment and gazed around at the crowd, which was at that point dancing to a local band, her husband, David, plucking away at his bass. The stage lights flashed purple, green and then red. Beyond the auction lay vineyards on the eastern hills. In the sky, clouds of smoke from a fire in Lake County hung low on the horizon. Stevens quickly checked her phone for alerts and then turned back.
“We are making some headway,” she said, “but there is a lot more work to be done.”