Sonoma comes back to life after the Kincade Fire, offering visitors a wine country welcome

Nov 16, 2019

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It’s my first time back in the Sonoma wine country town of Healdsburg, and I’m nervous.

I have a lot of history here: My father and stepmother once lived just a block from where I’m standing on the town’s central plaza, and I’m afraid to find it damaged as a result of the Kincade Fire, which swept through the county with terrifying ferocity during the last week of October.

But the shop windows on the streets surrounding the square are brightly lit, many already draped in garlands and twinkling lights for the holidays. And a cheerful buzz of conversation emanates from The Flight Deck, a new wine bar with the low-key vibe of a taproom. It’s not until I get close enough to catch the words that I realize what the people gathered around the counter are talking about. They’re exchanging stories of the evacuation that forced the residents of this bucolic wine country town to stay away for as long as a week.

There’s no question the fire caused tragic damage. Flames left more than 78,000 acres charred and blackened, and burned 140 homes as well as two historic wineries. But thanks to the heroic work of firefighters — and those efforts truly pushed the boundaries of heroism — the fire stayed largely in the northeast quadrant of the county, an area of steep hills and dense woodlands that’s largely unpopulated. Despite the terrifying images carried around the globe, the Kincade Fire burned less than 8% of the county as a whole. The fall grape harvest, 92% complete at the time the fire sparked, ultimately came to 95% of the usual yield.

Driving up highway 101 from Santa Rosa, where the once-tiny airport is now served by Alaska Airlines, United, Delta and American Airlines, it’s hard to see any evidence of the fires until you notice the eerily blackened slopes on distant hills.

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A spirit of recovery

Two years ago, when Sonoma was ravaged by another set of even more destructive wildfires, the community united under the slogan #SonomaStrong, pulling together to achieve an impressive recovery. That spirit is back in full force, with local winemakers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers and residents getting back to the business of welcoming visitors even before the fire was announced as fully contained.

The Hotel Healdsburg, evacuated like the rest of the town on Oct. 26, was checking in guests by Nov. 3. The night before opening they welcomed locals to a memorable event that exemplified the town’s community spirit, offering a free jazz concert and donating a portion of the evening’s food and drink revenues to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which supported evacuees with supplies.

All of this means that it’s the perfect time to visit Sonoma, enjoying its wineries, restaurants and shops free of the usual crowds (for now) while helping one of the country’s most beloved wine regions recover from disaster.

From the plaza, I head straight for Jimtown Store, a restaurant and antique shop in a 125-year-old clapboard storefront and gas station that happens to be located in the Alexander Valley, the area hardest hit by the fire. Like many Jimtown fans, I had obsessively followed owner Carrie Brown and her family’s Facebook posts reassuring readers of the building’s safety and testifying to the bravery of the firefighters who saved it.

Now, savoring one of chef Peter Brown’s signature brie and chopped olive sandwiches on a sourdough roll, I notice that replanting of the valley’s charred vineyards is already underway.

Even Soda Rock Winery, which lost its 150-year-old winery building to the flames fire, has already begun hosting tastings in a surviving barn under the protective eye of the winery’s mascot, a 40-foot-long steel sculpture of a wild boar named Lord Snort. The sculpture, originally created for Burning Man, wasn’t the only precious craft to survive — the winery’s owners were storing the majority of their wines off-site at the time of the fire.

At nearby Jordan Winery, the vines that drape the walls glow with fall color as they do this time every year, and the winery continues to offer its popular tastings, including December’s Holiday Tour & Tasting (advance reservations needed).

In tiny Geyserville, where the fire initially sparked, my favorite restaurants are all open, including landmark Catelli’s, which has occupied pride of place on Geyserville’s main street since 1936. While I’m not hungry yet, I stop by Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria, which delivered free pizzas to first responders throughout the fire, to say thank you and check out the scene.

House of Flowers, the new tasting room of Flowers Vineyard & Winery, lives up to its name. Photo: Flowers Winery
House of Flowers, the new tasting room of Flowers Vineyard & Winery, lives up to its name. Photo courtesy of Flowers Winery

Next I head for Dry Creek Valley to the west of town, my own personal favorite wine tasting region. My destination is House of Flowers, the newly opened tasting room of Flowers Vineyards and Winery on Westside Road. Known for their pioneering role in growing pinot noir and chardonnay far to the west on the craggy Sonoma Coast, Flowers was too remote to host tastings until this summer, when they opened this decidedly more luxurious garden gathering spot. As I settle into a rattan armchair on a sunny terrace with one of Flowers’ light, cool-climate chardonnays in hand, there’s no visible sign of the fire as far as I can see.

At the southeastern end of Westside Road I drop in to check on Porter Creek Vineyards, a throwback to the days when Sonoma wineries were casual family-run affairs. With chickens pecking about between weathered wood barns and Poppy the Aussie shepherding me around, I’m reassured to see some things remain unchanged.

Sleeping in Sonoma

Members of Marriott Bonvoy and other loyalty programs have many properties to choose from in Sonoma County, among them Hotel Trio Healdsburg, open just a year this fall. This new Residence Inn by Marriott is sure to be a favorite of families and groups, as the all-suite hotel offers kitchens in every room and bikes at the ready. You can book the Category 6 property for 50,000 points per night on standard dates. This winter, most dates can be booked from 40,000 points, and cash rates as low as $167.

To the west, in the nearby foodie mecca of Sebastopol, the, Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott is offering a 15% Leap Into Fall promotional discount. And the Category 7 Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa has rooms from 50,000 points (or $195) on select dates this winter.

The Best Western Dry Creek Inn, located within an easy drive or bike ride of my favorite wine tasting route, is also offering a special rate through Sonoma Wine Road. Cash rates are available from $127.

And to the east in the Sonoma Valley, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa won accolades from locals for offering heavily discounted rates to evacuees. Book it through Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resorts Collection (LHRC) with your Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — or another eligible Chase card — for daily breakfast for two; an upgrade on arrival, when available; a $100 resort credit; and a bottle of wine on arrival, among other perks.

But one of the best ways to support the residents of Sonoma County as they nurture their region back to health is to stay at one of the many boutique hotels that anchor Sonoma’s wine culture and carry it forwards. My latest favorite — which I pay for with my Chase Sapphire Reserve or Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card — is the Harmon Guest House on the plaza in downtown Healdsburg. The newest addition to the hotel group that also includes Hotel Healdsburg and H2hotel, Harmon Guest House has become a popular gathering spot thanks to its rooftop lounge, from which vantage point you can see all the way to Fitch Mountain — a fitting setting for a property named after city founder Harmon Heald.

All three group properties are offering guests a $25 dining credit toward one of the hotels’ popular restaurants, Spoonbar or Dry Creek Kitchen.

By far the most memorable Sonoma sleep is at the expansive wildlife rescue preserve Safari West, which offers overnight glamping experiences in their luxury safari tents. My kids can’t get enough of visiting Safari West, which also offers daytime safari tours — on which we always notice we’re joined by wildlife-lovers of all ages. One-night stays start at $250 this winter.

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Exploring beyond wine

In Windsor, the residential community south of Healdsburg that made headlines for its last-ditch stand against the fire, I stop into the Russian River Brewing Company’s new taproom. Maker of the coveted brews Pliny the Elder and Younger (the latter known for causing riots on its annual release day, Feb. 7), Russian River Brewing Company has announced that it’s bringing back Sonoma Pride, the signature beer that raised well over a million dollars for wildfire victims two years ago.

November is also Dungeness crab season, which officially began Nov. 2, and I spend my last day out on the coast looking for whale spouts off Bodega Head and eating crab cakes with roasted red pepper sauce at Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay.

While the grapevines are at their most spectacular before the leaves drop, winter in Sonoma has its own cozy pleasures. Healdsburg traditionally goes into full festive mode for the holidays, and the fire’s not going to change that, with the Holiday Arts and Crafts Market happening in tandem with the town farmer’s market every Saturday in November.

The much-loved Holidays in Healdsburg wine and food walking tours will also go on as planned, strolling the tree-lined streets and visiting boutiques, tasting rooms and restaurants serving up baked goods, port wine, chocolates and other delicacies all paired with local wines.

For two days in January, Sonoma Wine Road will host Winter Wineland, with participating wineries offering catered tastings and pairings under one ticket. And any day of the year the Wine Road tasting pass is a bargain at $35, giving you access to 65 different wineries in the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.

For Sonoma fans who can’t visit in person, the county has created a #SipSonoma offer providing $5 shipping on cases of wine through Nov. 22. And Corazón Healdsburg is raising funds for vineyard workers and others displaced by the fire.

Feature photo courtesy of Jordan Winery. 

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