The signs are everywhere, and their messages simple. “Thank you, firefighters,” reads one, “God bless.” “Thank you for saving our town,” reads another.
And another, “Thank you, firefighters, police, EMTs, first responders, and volunteers.” Then finally, one that is more prevalent than the others, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”
I’m in Healdsburg, in the heart of California’s wine country, just six weeks after wildfires ravaged Sonoma and Napa Valley.
Healdsburg, whose population is about 12,000, is about an hour’s drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in Sonoma County along the fabled Highway 101. The signs, some with letters haphazardly spray-painted and others neatly blocked off, are freckled around Sonoma as expressions of gratitude for the firefighters and countless others who fought the inferno day and night to save this stunningly picturesque area and especially the lives of its citizens.
As I walk along the paths of the tree-shaded Healdsburg Plaza — think of it as an old-fashioned town square — the air smells of autumn crispness, not of smoke. Not one bit, not even a puff. For a week or two after those fires that began Oct. 8, the news was filled with images of neighborhoods in flames and hilltops ablaze.
One well-known news site even reported, “Rivers of wine boil as they leak out of scorched vineyards.” With those perceptions, who would want to visit California wine country? Me, that’s who. And you.
I don’t have on blinders, certainly, and there is no diminishing the number of lives lost and property destroyed. As I drive through Sonoma, there are indeed vestiges of fire that transformed portions of Northern California’s wine country into a fiery hell. Some areas look chillingly post-apocalyptic, with the bones of former grand homes and businesses now gray with ash.
But most of what I see is intact. The skies are still blue, the breezes cool, and the sun-dappled vineyards as rolling and beautiful as they were since my first visit nearly 30 years ago. Every turn of the road revealed vast wine estates and stunning vistas reminiscent of the old wine-growing regions of France, Italy and South Africa. It is not, as the news may have led us to believe, all gloom and doom.
Of the hundreds upon hundreds of wineries across the region, just a few burned completely, while others, numbering about a dozen, were heavily damaged or scorched by flames.
“Most of the wine regions were not affected,” says Lisa Mattson, who is director of marketing at Healdsburg’s Jordan Winery, where I visit for a wine tasting. Vineyards, she says, can be a “natural firebreak” and help to protect the wineries. Jordan Winery, like hundreds of others, was not touched except by layers of smoke that permeated the air.
The fires struck just after grape harvest, a high traffic time for tourists who come to Healdsburg and Sonoma for, among other things, the extravaganza of dazzling fall color of the vineyards.
And therein lies one reason I am in Healdsburg. I love autumn and all that it brings, and I’ve always wanted to see Sonoma County’s vineyards in their glory, having seen them before only in spring and summer.
Naturally I was also concerned that everything in Sonoma County burned — that was the picture painted by news reports, anyway — but a friend who often travels here for work convinced me otherwise, telling me that I have to see it to believe it. Together we visit, flying into San Francisco and then renting a car and driving for endless miles through the Sonoma countryside, with Healdsburg as our home base.
Our all-too-brief three-night stay in Healdsburg was at the Hotel Les Mars, one of those quintessential wine country inns complete with French furnishings including four-poster beds, bright colors and rich antiques. It’s just a block from Healdsburg Plaza. It is here we meet Brian Sommer, its very much hands-on and friendly general manager. After several conversations, I also discover that he is chair of the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District. It’s a small town. Almost everyone is connected to tourism and wears many hats.
When I ask Sommer about those boiling “rivers of wine,” he laughs and says he hadn’t heard of such a thing.
“Ninety-eight percent of the 2017 vintage was already in,” he points out, adding that tourism took a direct hit nonetheless because of the perception cast by news reports that Sonoma and Napa were pretty much wiped off the map.
He, along with everyone else even remotely connected to tourism, wants the visitors to come back. While the Hotel Les Mars has always offered personalized service for its guests, he’s hoping it will be part of the lure to bring back tourists who might otherwise stay away after the wildfires. A hundred wineries are within a 10-minute drive of his inn, he says, and the hotel partners with Silver Service and Healdsburg Tours to offer tours of the wine country in luxury vehicles including Land Rover, Mercedes and Tesla, with personally crafted itineraries. The thing is, he says, while wine is the megastar of Sonoma, there is so much to do in addition to winetasting and tours, including canoeing or kayaking the Russian River, the softly flowing river that cuts a scenic swath through Sonoma; hot air ballooning; exploring art galleries; meandering the coast near Bodega Bay and Jenner; and dining out. It’s all still here, he assures me.
That evening I dine at Valette, a Healdsburg restaurant recommended by Sommer, and partake of a wine-paired tasting menu with courses such as crispy-skin striped bass and an apple-glazed pork porterhouse that sent my taste buds into orbit. For a Sunday night, it’s crowded. My waiter says it’s mostly locals, but he is confident tourists will return when word gets out that Sonoma hasn’t gone up in smoke.
My friend and I set out the next morning to visit Honor Mansion, a charming and very peaceful vineyard inn hidden away on a tree-lined street in Healdsburg. Years before I had stayed at the inn, and owner Steve Fowler welcomes me again with open arms. As he bustles about serving breakfast, I strike up a conversation with a couple named Ron and Jane who are seated in a sunny window booth.
Ron is an energy consultant, and Jane had an embroidery business. They are in their mid-70s, but look much younger. They are evacuees from nearby Santa Rosa, where the worst of the fires, in their words hot enough to melt jewelry and warp cast iron, devastated entire neighborhoods, including their home and Jane’s home-based business. Honor Mansion has been their home since.
“We’re putting in a bid on a home, and we can start over,” Jane says. “Some of our friends who are in their 80s can’t and have moved away.”
“I think that 30 to 40 percent of those who lost homes will take the money and run,” Ron says, adding that some of their neighbors, defeated by fire and insurance issues, have already permanently left for Florida and Texas. But Sonoma County is home for them, and they are staying put.
Later that morning at Jordan Winery, a family wine estate established by Tom and Sally Jordan and set on 1,200 acres of hilltop vineyards, I meet not only Mattson, but also second-generation vintner John Jordan, who’s now CEO of the winery and who’s also a philanthropist, pilot and Fox News contributor. He had popped over to speak to Mattson but ended up staying a few minutes to talk.
“We are open for business, and it’s business as usual,” Jordan says as I listen and take a sip of one of the best chardonnays I have ever sampled. “Most of Sonoma County is open for business. You have to understand that 99.9 percent of all visitor experiences are open. You hear burn, burn, burn, but it’s not true.”
The more my friend and I drive through Sonoma, the more we find that Jordan is absolutely correct. That afternoon, we stop in at the Healdsburg Hotel near Healdsburg Plaza for a glass of wine in the lobby bar before heading over to Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen for dinner. There, we meet and talk to Circe Sher, who we soon learn is president and co-founder of Piazza Hospitality, the company that owns the hotel and restaurant, and Paige Wilcox, a Georgia transplant who manages marketing for the company.
“We had a lot of smoke for a couple of days, and everyone watched the ridges, but the fire didn’t get here,” says Wilcox. “But we did get a lot of evacuees, as well as helicopter pilots, fire and rescue, and first responders. It was amazing how the community came together during the fire.”
After a wave of cancellations from guests who, like many others, were under the wronger-than-wrong impression that Sonoma has slammed shut to visitors, they welcome tourists to come see for themselves.
“This is a tourism town,” says Wilcox, “and we need the tourism.”
While it will take years to rebuild after the fires, spring will bring green grass to the once-charred hills and the vines will awaken from their winter slumber. The wine is flowing again, not in boiling rivers, but in glasses raised to the future of Healdsburg, Sonoma County and the entire wine-growing region.