By Mary Ann Anderson
Tribune News Service
The late fall day is cool and foggy with light rain falling, weather seemingly more suited for San Francisco than the usually sunny Healdsburg, in good traffic maybe an hour’s drive north of the Bay Area.
On a guided tour of Jordan Vineyard and Winery, in the Alexander Valley of California’s Sonoma County, a cloak of ghostly mist shrouding a hillside lifts just enough to reveal a picture-perfect flock of turkeys, dozens and dozens of toms and hens and their chicks, scrounging and feeding on whatever tidbits of food they could find in the richly fertile grasslands.
And not a single bird stands on scorched earth.
Portions of Sonoma County were burned by the Kincade fire last year, a blaze thought to have been caused by a downed powerline near Geyserville.
The images on the news were of Sonoma’s skies aglow in bright red and orange, embers raining down like fireworks. As the smoke and flames swirled, reports circulated worldwide that California’s wine country was pretty much annihilated.
But that is far, very far, from the entire story.
According to Sonoma County Tourism, the Kincade fire damaged almost 78,000 acres, less than 8 percent of Sonoma County’s million or so acres, and most of that was vegetation in the mountains and wild land in the northeastern quadrant of the county.
The places where most tourists go — the wineries, the beaches, the redwood groves — remain untouched.
In the weeks just before the first sparks flew, the wine grape harvest was 92% complete, with an additional 3% harvested before the evacuations of Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor, all small towns in the Sonoma County corridor.
Embroidered into the fabric of Sonoma are some 425 wineries open to the public. All but two escaped the fire’s wrath, the Spire Collection at Field Stone Vineyard, whose winery and barn were damaged, and then Soda Rock Winery.
Most of the images in the news were of Soda Rock burning, almost all of it except its historic barn going up in flames. And only a week after the last fires were extinguished, owners Ken and Diane Wilson reopened the tasting room.
The 150-year-old barn is a little chilly on the rainy day I drop by for a tasting and find Ken Wilson, who is eager to talk about the fire. As he speaks, a few other guests and I sample his Kenneth Carl Brut, a sparkling wine crafted with grapes from Mendocino County just to the north of Sonoma County.
“I didn’t look back,” says Wilson, taking a sip of the Brut and pointing out that most of his wine inventory was stored offsite and thus saved from the fires. “I started counting my blessings. We’re trying to keep life alive and even just opened a tasting room in Healdsburg. We’re going to rebuild but it’s still a ways off.”
That’s just it. Life in Sonoma is very much alive, a thought echoed by Brian Sommer, manager of the Hotel Les Mars in Healdsburg.
“Not one structure caught fire in the city of Healdsburg,” says Sommer, noting that some guests cancelled their reservations in thinking the worst when the complete opposite was true. “Firefighters saved the structures. They saved our way of life.”
Sonoma’s natural beauty and wine industry have been luring wine travelers for decades, but the Kincade fire, like the devastating Tubbs fire of 2017, made huge ripples in its tourism. Now, says Sommer, everyone needs to know that the wine country lifestyle is still very much intact.
“We want people to come for the wine country experience,” says Sommer. “To taste it, feel it, see it, take it to heart and to soul, this way of life. We want them to come and be a part of the life here. If you have reservations, don’t cancel or you’ll miss out on a great wine and cultural experience.”
A few weeks back I spent a few days with a friend in Healdsburg, the heart of Sonoma’s wine country, and she and I set out to visit several wineries from the Hotel Les Mars, where we stayed. Our first stop is Mauritson Wines.
Clay Mauritson, its owner and founder, has been in Sonoma through seven generations of farmers who first homesteaded here as immigrants from Sweden in 1868. Since then, his family has grown grapes and raised cattle and sheep, with the winery opening in 2014.
There was no fire damage here where we try several wines, among them a very cold, very fragrant, very floral sauvignon blanc and a slightly fruity and spicy zinfandel from the Rockpile label.
“What I love about our wine is the when and where it came from,” Mauritson says. “How amazing is it that every single bottle of wine has a story? This is one of the most unique, spectacular grape-growing regions in the world.”
We soon move on to Arista Winery, where we meet Mark McWilliams, who, with his brother, Ben, own the winery. Arista primarily produces pinot noir and chardonnay on land also inhabited by various critters including chickens, goats, sheep and a couple of donkeys named Darla and Daisy.
“The name Arista is a Greek word, and its root means ‘excellence,’ “ McWilliams says. “It means the best. We use the low and slow old-school methods of making wine.”
We listen to McWilliams, a friend of Mauritson’s, as we taste several wines, including Two Birds Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir and Perli Vineyard Chardonnay.
“People come here from all walks of life for the common core of local wine, cheese and food,” says McWilliams as he stands behind the bar in the tasting room. “It’s a fantasyland for epicureans. It’s a magical, magical place.”
As with Mauritson, there is no sign of fire damage here, either, but he chimes in, “The fires are a wakeup call for the state to manage forests and woodlands. We learned so much in the past two years since the last fire. Even houses are now being built differently with finishing touches of metal roofs and concrete barriers.”
He notes that in the learning curve since the 2017 fire, there is much more that firefighters can do, such as directing fires away from neighborhoods and forecasting wind direction.
“Forecasting is much more sophisticated now,” he says. “You can think of fire like a hurricane and sort of predict what it is going to do.”
After leaving Arista, we made our way to lunch in nearby Windsor before driving south to Santa Rosa. Here we pass neighborhoods that just two years ago were burned to cinders. At that time, I truthfully didn’t think recovery was possible, but seeing is believing. Entire neighborhoods have been rebuilt, their homes already occupied where once lay only smoldering ruins of people’s lives. All I can do is shake my head in wonder at row after row of freshly painted homes, some adorned with Christmas decorations of reindeer and brightly colored lights. Sonoma speaks volumes about the strength of the human spirit.
From Santa Rosa, we drive to the 1,300-acre Chalk Hill Estate on the edge of the Russian River Valley and one of more than two dozen wineries of Foley Family Wines that are scattered among California, Washington, Oregon and New Zealand.
Across the vast acreage of the estate, spurts of new green growth peek out from the darkened earth. The fire had come here, but no buildings nor the tasting room was damaged and Chalk Hill’s signature showstopper views of Sonoma’s verdant, rolling terrain remain as stunning as always.
Later at Jordan Vineyard and Winery, where the turkeys trotted on the hillside of the 1,200-acre winery and vineyards complex in Alexander Valley, we join a guided tour where we meet Maggie Kruse, the winemaker.
When someone asks Kruse about the fires, she answers, “We were very, very fortunate. The fire came to the property line and it was quite smoky, but none of Jordan burned.”
One reason, she cites, is that black angus and a few longhorn cattle are raised on Jordan’s luxuriant farmlands awash with sweet grasses, adding, “The cattle eat a lot of grass and vegetation so there isn’t a lot of fuel for the fire to burn.”
Jordan not only makes award-winning wines _ its chardonnay has always been a favorite of mine since I first visited the winery a few years back _ but also grows a variety of fruit and nuts including olives, peaches, figs, pomegranates, apples and hazelnuts. Jordan also produces sweet honey, a citrus and fennel salt and a silky olive oil that I discovered after taking home a bottle is the perfect accompaniment to homegrown tomatoes and grain bread.
Later at Garden Creek Winery, where appointments for tastings are necessary since it’s small and family-run, we visit with Karin Miller, who owns the small winery with her husband, Justin.
“Justin grew up here,” Karin, a Swedish immigrant, says. “My husband is a farmer from head to toe. We’ve both been winegrowing all of our lives.”
The Kincade fire made a beeline for Garden Creek, leaping over a hilltop and heading straight for the vineyard. Justin and a small crew tried their best to save the vineyard, but the flames took out several of their structures including a crew house and about two-thirds of their cabernet sauvignon grapes, a tremendous amount for a small winery to lose.
But the Millers are not deterred and are moving forward. As we sample a crisp Chardonnay and Tessarae red wine blend, Karin is animated as she proclaims, “There is an incredible beauty in wine, and it is a work of art. We love what we do, and our place in winemaking is to stay focused on the details.”
The Millers’ home and winery were spared, and even after the fires, they’re staying put.
“We’re resilient,” she says, her soft voice adamant. “We aren’t going anywhere.”
In the late afternoon, we make our final stop at Silver Oak in Alexander Valley. The winery, with its dramatic views not obscured by but only heightened by those wispy tendrils of fog falling upon the low mountains surrounding the vineyards, was also spared the anger of the Kincade fire, even though for a while it appeared to be in its bulls’-eye.
As we wander around the winery with its massive, shimmering glass windows that afford commanding views of the natural stair-step topography of the mountains, I try to imagine fire screaming down the hillside toward the winery known for its exquisite cabernet sauvignon. But the fire was stopped by the natural firebreak of the vineyards.
Here’s why. Most vineyards are well-tended and don’t have a great deal of dry vegetation between the rows, which means little combustible matter to burn. Plus, the vines naturally have a high moisture content, a deterrent for just about any fire. Too, vineyards usually have dirt access roads, so they act as another firebreak, and they generally aren’t surrounded by trees so any embers flying around from above are much less likely to ignite more flames.
With the winery visits tucked into my memory and the fires in the history books, my takeaway of Sonoma is this. If you plan to visit this wondrous wine-growing area but hesitate because fire damage, then hesitate no more. It’s as gorgeous as ever with practically the entire wine industry surviving unscathed. While the past few years have been rough with the fires, it is not, as one winemaker states, the new normal. Fires are not an ongoing way of life but yes, they do occur.
“Wildfire is a natural part of California life due to the vast amount of forests,” says Lisa Mattson, Jordan’s director of communications and marketing. “There are 33 million acres of forested land in the Golden State.”
Sonoma is wide open for business and home to fabulous world-class wines, and the byproduct of world-class wines, Mauritson says, is that it brings with it world-class restaurants and world-class culture, all of which you get to savor as a visitor to this remarkable corner of California.
“Wine country hospitality is fireproof,” says Mattson. “Hospitality is a way of life here. When a natural disaster occurs, it doesn’t change our spirit of hospitality, our hearts or how we live in the service industry. The warm welcome or services we provide to our guests hasn’t changed.”