Coming into Sonoma from San Francisco at night doesn’t introduce you very well to the landscape. The roads are rural highways without lights. Trees loom into the cone of your headlights then vanish. You know you’re looking at vineyards, of course, you’re looking at vineyards. There’s a great open space of flora you can’t actually see but which you know are grapes. Out in the back of these dark fields, a winery or a vintner’s house is dimly lit, its windows glowing warm and golden, far off in the distance. There is little sound. No traffic, no horns, no sirens. The air is cool, crisp, and clean. If you roll the window down, it fills the car and you marvel at the perfume of eucalyptus and manzanita. And smoke.
You can’t see the devastation at night, but you can smell it. Even in November. Even weeks after massive fires swept over the hills and down through the canyons. Mostly, it smells like yesterday’s fireplace gone cold. Gone out. A char-grilled smell. A campfire smell. Mostly. Then Waze takes you down a weird turn and you enter a neighborhood. What used to be a neighborhood. Now it is a scorched and barren hellscape. Now there are no more trees looming in your headlights. Instead, the debris of a furious disaster: A burned out Subaru, nothing left but it’s frame. A lone, naked chimney. A washing machine. And the smell is no longer the sort of kind of familiar scent of a campfire. It’s chemical. Stringent. Alarming.
And then you’re out of the neighborhood, out on a black ribbon winding its way past country stores and wine tasting rooms and suddenly you’re in Sonoma proper. The actual city of Sonoma with its central park square dominated by old City Hall and you’re looking for parking because you have reservations at La Sallette and that’s when you finally see signs of the fire.
In every window. Taped to the side of a building. Fastened to the hood of a pick-up truck. Signs. They bear magic marker messages of passionate thanks to the countless professional firemen, to the army of volunteers, to the hundreds of residents who belonged to no organization, no fleet, no department but threw themselves into the massive and terrifying effort to save this valley from utter ruin. And all of them, every single hand-lettered sign, every single t-shirt, every single hastily printed gift shop postcard, every single pick-up truck window bears the same message in block letters as clear and direct as possible: Sonoma Strong.
Sonoma is a national treasure
I didn’t go to wine country to gawk at the damage. Some friends and I have a standing tradition of joining the annual Wine Road tour on the first weekend of November. For a reasonable fee, you get a bracelet and free tastings at more than 140 wineries. If you hire a driver (and you should) you can easily make 14 stops over the weekend, tasting and spitting your way through vineyards, through microclimates that give each of the grapes their unique flavor.
You get to taste several wines at each stop, paired with a small bite created by each winery’s favorite chef. And through it all, you’ll travel the back roads and winding paths of the Russian River Valley, of Alexander Valley, of Sonoma, of Chalk Hill. It’s like driving through a succession of brilliantly staged photographs. Sonoma is deliriously beautiful and unflinchingly romantic. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.
And you will not be alone. Every year (how many?) the wine tour sells out, bringing (how many) visitors to northern California wine country. Not just wine freaks from Chicago, but Californians by the busload and people from all over the U.S. and the world. They come because wine is wonderful and Sonoma wine is especially so.
They come because since grapes replaced apples and prunes in (date) as the main crop in the valley, it has grown into one of the world’s great regions for wine. At auction, Sonoma wines sell for exorbitant prices right alongside coveted bottles of Côtes du Rhône. The fact is, California makes world-class wine and Sonoma is quickly becoming California’s crown jewel of eau—giving Napa a run for its money (and glamour, and Michelin starred restaurants). And, like Burgundy in France, the Rioja in Spain, and Tuscany in Italy, Sonoma has become a global destination.
But it almost didn’t make it.
Santa Rosa is a small town on highway 101 smack in the middle of wine country. It’s just the mountain from Napa Valley and about 2 hours north of San Francisco. The neighborhoods are–were–mostly luxury homes. The kind of places with a swimming pool, a stonework grill, and a three-car garage.
On the night of October 8, 75 mph winds were blowing through Santa Rosa, a small town nestled in the hills of wine country. At 9:22 the Sonoma County Dispatch recorded a call about a brush fire on Buckingham Drive. One minute later there’ a report of an ‘electrical investigation’ at Maverick Court leading dispatch to send out a team to look for a transformer explosion. By the end of the night, crews had raced to more than 10 blown transformers and downed lines–many of them with burning trees blown into the lines. By 10:15, 911 was flooded with reports of fires. At 11:03 law enforcement sent the first emergency evacuation notice. Santa Rosa was in flames.
The Tubbs fire raged as high winds and dry conditions fed the flames. In a few hours, fires destroyed 1800 homes in Fountaingrove, 750 in Larkfield Park, and 1500 in Coffey Park. Hotels, bars, mobile homes, and horse stables had ignited from great sheets of flame roaring over the hills. The Pocket fire burned 17 thousand acres near Geyserville. The Atlas fire took nearly 52 thousand acres around Atlas Peak Mountain, including 800 structures, some wineries, and vineyards. The Nuns fire claimed 56 thousand acres.
By the time the smoke cleared, more than 182 thousand acres of vegetation, 8,400 buildings, and 42 people were gone. More than 30 wineries in the region, including both Sonoma and Napa Counties, burned to the ground.
A misconception about the Sonoma fires
Which may lead to conversations like I had with a friend who found out I was vacationing in Sonoma.
“Didn’t it all burn down?”
Sonoma’s still there. Millions of acres of grape vines are still pumping out delicious vino and there remain extraordinary places to visit in between your efforts to drink all of it. The idea that Sonoma and Napa Valley are toast is wildly inaccurate but, like those wildfires, it has spread. Multiply my friend by millions and you can see how the unscathed wineries might have cause to be nervous. The fire didn’t burn down Sonoma and Napa Valley, but it may have laid a heavy singe on tourism. May have.
There aren’t any numbers for the fire’s impact on tourism. However, it’s important to realize that 90% of the land was untouched. Sonoma’s still there.
I was there in the first weekend of November—one day after the last embers of the Tubbs fire finally died. Our AirBnB was in Forestville near the Russian River on a hill with an impossibly crooked one-way single-lane road that twisted and snaked between homes hanging onto the sides of the hill for dear life. We stayed seven days and the only time we saw the effects of the fires was when Waze took us through Fountainview because Waze gives directions like your drunk grandfather trying to avoid the cops. To avoid traffic, Waze sent us right through a ruined neighborhood. It was awful and devastating and struck us into a respectful silence punctuated by quietly whispered oh my Gods and gasps of horror. However, without the witless direction of GPS apps, we may have gotten a glimpse of a few charred areas on the hilltops and some burned outbuildings along one road into Sonoma, but not much else. The fires took s fraction of the total acreage. The remainder is unbearably beautiful, which makes accidentally witnessed scenes of destruction even more startling.
Waze did it again when we drove from Healdsburg to Yountsville to go to dinner at the French Laundry. Of course, it dragged us off the 101 out through the hinterlands onto a two-lane road and stuck us behind a Cadillac SUV driven by someone who was clearly snap chatting disaster tourism. They 30 in a 50mph zone and braked suddenly to take pictures of burned trees and pick-up trucks melted into the dirt. Waze finally directed us onto Trinity Road which bears some legendary status as it follows a trail over the mountain into Yountsville which was apparently designed by a terrified ground squirrel being chased by a coyote. Trinity road is more twisted than a David Lynch movie. However, it is a beautiful drive (unless you’re prone to motion sickness or afraid of heights or your brakes are shot). It climbs up the rugged face of the mountain, with turns so sharp and graded the front of your car seems to hang off into open space. At the top, the tree line breaks open to reveal a view East over the valley that is breathtakingly beautiful and deserves some kind of monument or at least a place where you can pull over to take a picture because I only glanced at it and we almost shot off a cliff. On the way down, it feels like you’re tunneling through a forest and while I assume this drive is ordinarily hand-to-God beautiful, we saw great swaths of burned forest, trunks of trees charred on one side, green and mossy on the other and it was clear that while the fire climbed the mountain in great terrifying leaps, it died out quickly, leaving most of the vegetation–and most of the homes–intact. Most.
Yet. Yet when we dropped down into Yountsville and parked directly in front of the French Laundry (seriously, like 20 feet away from the front door), we got out and walked through their famous gardens as the sun set behind those same hills and it was as if nothing had ever happened. Their gardens, the valley behind them, the whole area was just as it always has been. Untouched. Brilliantly verdant. Almost distressingly beautiful.
Go for the wine. Stay for the wine. Also, wine.
Which is part of why we go every year. Which is why we’ll go again in 2018 and each November after. Sonoma is insanely beautiful. The winding roads between Forestville and the vineyards of the Russian River and Alexander Valleys are a succession of perfect picture postcards. It’s like driving through the photographs of a National Geographic article about wine country. Stand on the balcony of Chalk Hill estates, or in the back 40 of Roth Estates and just shut the hell up for five minutes and take in that hefty helping of pure beauty. Go to Jordan Estates where even the driveway is photogenic. Fall back into a comfortable chair on the hilltop balcony of Macrostie Vineyards and stare across miles and miles of a Kodakable landscape toward Calistoga Mountain with a glass of their pinot noir and try to muster anything more articulate than a half-whispered and prayerful and perhaps involuntary oh my God.
Then, of course, there is the wine. I could fill seventy pages with the details of the Sonoma County AVA and its myriad sub-ava regions and microclimates and nooks and crannies that grow ten billion different kinds of grapes that make as many different kinds of wine but I will save you from that nerdish deluge and say just this: my God—the wine.
You can, and you should spend a nice long Saturday driving from one winery to another. They are clustered together along twisting country roads that dive under old ancient oaks and over creeks and rivers. The wine from one vineyard could not be more distinct from the wine made less than a mile away by a neighboring vintner. The variety is staggering.
Several times every year a 40-year-old association of Sonoma wineries called the Wine Road brings over a hundred producers together for a weekend wine tour. Thousands of people from all over the world pay a modest fee that allows them to sample wine at participating vineyards. It’s a road trip through the three major appellations of Sonoma County: Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley. Each vineyard offers their signature wines paired with a small bite of food. This is the event that first drew me to Sonoma County and the one to which I return each year, trying very hard to finally taste my way through every wine produced there.
At the end of such a day, you’ll find yourself in one of the little towns scattered throughout the county looking for something more than a taste and a bite and you will be richly rewarded. There is a constellation of Michelin stars scattered through these towns. Besides the French Laundry, considered by many the best restaurant on earth, there is Madrona Manor, Single Thread, Farmhouse, and Terrapin Creek for actual stars. Then there are the bibs, Backyard, Bravas, Glenn Ellen Star, Chalkboard, SHED, and more all of whom will happily uncork that brand new bottle of something you can barely afford you picked up on your tour.
The next big event is Winter WINEland on the weekend of Martin Luther King day. You can get tickets here or buy them on the day-of at any participating winery. And who knows, as you ride in a wine tour bus or pilot your rental through the dips and turns along the wine roads, maybe you’ll see those same signs I saw, the ones proclaiming what is clear and obvious to anyone who visits, the enduring spirit and rallying cry of California wine country: Sonoma is still strong.
For a limited time, Sonoma County lodging, wineries, spas, and attractions are offering hot deals. Visit sonomasneakaway.com for more specials or to register for a chance to win an amazing wine country experience. For even more events in Sonoma in 2018, visit sonomacounty.com/events.
Post Script: Since writing this story new fires have erupted near Los Angeles. They have burned more acreage in than at any time and anywhere else in Southern California's history. The story above has some lighthearted moments because it was written in the aftermath, after the smoke had cleared, after the region was moving toward a new normal. It is my sincere hope that the people affected by these fires, the people in and around Los Angeles, stay safe and that they may get back to their own normal as soon as possible.