Northern California’s wine country needs you to visit

Kenwood, California CNN  — 

The wine is flowing again at Steve Ledson’s ornate castle winery in Sonoma County.

In the main salon behind a hand-hewn wooden bar, Ledson servers welcome guests with tastes of chilled and crisp sauvignon blanc.

In one of the private tasting areas on the second floor, guests nibble on platters of salami and cheese between smells and sips of zinfandel or cabernet. The pop of a cork being pulled from a bottle rings out from an adjacent room.

Three weeks ago, this Normandy-style attraction locked its doors and shut down as flames from one of the most destructive fires in California history advanced to mere yards from its rear patio.

Flames rise behind Ledson Vineyards & Winery on October 14, 2017.

Today, like most of the rest of wine country, Ledson Vineyards & Winery is open for business again, in what normally would typically be its busy harvest season.

At least 39 people died when five fast-moving wildfires raged across Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties in October, destroying more than 8,300 homes and other structures, Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told CNN.

Preliminary damage estimates for the three counties combined exceed $3 billion, according to California insurance commissioner Dave Jones.

Despite the devastation, most of Northern California’s wine country was untouched. All told, the fires burned roughly 199,000 acres, or 5.3% of the 3.7 million land acres that encompass Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, McLean said.

The bulk of the devastated area was residential – of approximately 1,200 wineries in the three-county region, only three were destroyed and a small number of others were damaged to the point of having to close, according to officials with those three wineries and county vintner associations. All of the partially damaged wineries are open again.

“People saw some of the images in the newspaper or on TV, and they think all of wine country has been burned to the ground,” says Ledson. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

The fires are out, but misunderstandings about the extent of the damage has prompted an unprecedented slowdown in travel to wine country.

Normally bustling cities are quiet

Hotel Healdsburg has seen a wave of cancellations.

Bustling cities such as Calistoga and Healdsburg – destinations where parking spots typically are hard to come by during this time of year – feel a lot slower than usual. In Carneros, where some of the major access roads meet, busy intersections have gone quiet. Restaurants struggle to fill seats, and many popular hotels have logged significant numbers of cancellations.

Even normally busy wineries are feeling the pinch. At Ledson, where a typical weekend day brings in 400 guests, employees say they’ve been lucky to get more than 125 visitors. Other wineries report a similar drop-off.

Circe Sher, a partner at Hotel Healdsburg and H2Hotel in Healdsburg, conservatively estimates setbacks totaling $500,000, including revenue lost from nixed reservations, catering and restaurant cancellations, and spa appointments erased from the books. They’re discounting some dates to get visitors back.

“We’re in the middle of harvest – this is supposed to be the busy season around here,” she says. “The ripple effect is tremendous. Many small businesses that depend on high season to make their revenue for winter are hanging by a thread.”

On one hand, thousands of residents across three counties have lost everything, and need basic items such as clothes, lodging and food before they can even focus on what comes next.

But many locals, including some who lost their homes, work in the wine and tourism industries. They depend on visitors coming back to the wineries, hotels and restaurants.

While many locals are confident their region will recover, they hope guests return sooner rather than later.

Local wineries were mostly spared

Paradise Ridge's wine barrels burned during the fire.

Considering how widespread the fires were, it’s remarkable the local wine industry didn’t take more of a direct hit.

One of the reasons the wineries were mostly spared: Vineyards, with their corduroy-like rows and ample irrigation, act as natural firebreaks.

Across the three counties, the facilities at three wineries were destroyed completely—Paradise Ridge in Sonoma, Signorello Estate in Napa and Frey Vineyards in Mendocino. While each of these entities lost tasting and production facilities, the vineyards remained largely untouched.

In the case of Paradise Ridge, an on-site sculpture garden also survived, largely because the artwork was made of metal and stone.

Other wineries had close calls but managed to survive.

In Sonoma, flames threatened facilities at Ledson and damaged structures at Chateau St. Jean and Gundlach Bundschu. In Napa, damages were recorded at Brown Estate Vineyards, Hagafen Cellars, Storybook Mountain Vineyards and The Hess Collection, while Regusci Winery staved off disaster with a mix of quick thinking, heavy machinery, water from the on-site pool and luck.

Because wine from previous vintages was mostly stored offsite, Paradise Ridge, Signorello Estate and Frey still have wine to sell.

The 2017 wine, however, is another story. While Frey and Signorello reported no losses to the current vintage, Paradise Ridge co-owner Sonia Byck-Barwick said all of the wine in fermentation tanks at her winery was ruined during the fires. The winemaker had to start over with a limited supply of cabernet sauvignon afterward.

Paradise Ridge has a satellite tasting room on Highway 12 in Kenwood that was unharmed and is open daily. Wines from Frey are available online, and Signorello’s wines are available through its membership program.

Donating to recovery efforts

A Reeve Wines fundraiser raised more than $220,000.

All of the remaining wineries with smoke or fire damage have reopened and are pouring samples at their regular tasting rooms. Many wineries, whether they suffered damage or not, are contributing portions of tasting fees to various victim relief funds.

In Sonoma County, Kendall-Jackson, a big-name winery in Fulton, has vowed to give $5 for every bottle and $20 for every wine club membership to benefit fire relief organizations.

Benovia Winery, a boutique operation in Santa Rosa, is waiving all usual tasting fees and donating $50 for each visitor tasting reservation to fire-related philanthropies.

Reeve Wines in Healdsburg held a fundraising raffle that raised more than $220,000—all by word of mouth.

“This has been a nightmare, but we have witnessed beautiful acts of bravery, generosity and the best part of the human spirit in our community,” said Reeve co-owner Noah Dorrance. “We really are stronger together.”

In Napa County, Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford is donating 100 percent of tasting bar fees during the month of November to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund. Honig Vineyard & Winery plans to give 25 percent of all online sales this month to the same charity.

Honig Vineyard co-owner Stephanie Honig says her winery joined forces with wineries such as Peju, Cakebread Cellars, Alpha Omega, Frog’s Leap and others to donate tasting fees from one Sunday in October. Together the collective raised more than $10,000 in one day.

Supporting restaurants and hotels

Valette chef Dustin Valette and general manager Aaron Garzini fed first responders.

Wineries weren’t the only local businesses contributing to disaster relief.

Dustin Valette, chef and owner of Valette restaurant in Healdsburg, worked with a half-dozen other chefs across the Sonoma County to coordinate meals during the fires for first responders and evacuees in shelters.

Participating chefs prepared assignments in their own kitchens, brought the food to Valette, where he and other staff packed aluminum containers for transport to the front lines.

“In times of crisis, you do what you can with the crafts and skills you have,” said Valette, whose father is an aerial firefighter. “For us, that meant preparing food.”

Chefs in Napa County engaged in similarly charitable efforts. Compline Wine Bar, Restaurant and Merchant, which opened in downtown Napa a few weeks before the fires began, prepared meals for firefighters working in the area. Acacia House, the restaurant inside Las Alcobas Napa Valley in St. Helena, served free food to firefighters and evacuees.

On Nov. 21, chef Tyler Florence will partner with Visit California, the state’s tourism office, to host The Grateful Table, a $500 per seat fundraising dinner that will donate all proceeds to fire relief. And on Dec. 2, noted chefs Thomas Keller and Christopher Kostow and others will collaborate on a dinner and auction benefiting the Napa & Sonoma Relief Fund at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Tickets went on sale this week at $2,500 a pop.

Astro Motel opened its doors to first respondes and people who lost their homes.

A number of hotels have joined the relief efforts, too, offering free or discounted rooms to evacuees and first responders whenever rooms became available.

On the Sonoma side, the Astro Motel in Santa Rosa contributed rooms although it didn’t open to the public until Oct. 27. On the Napa side, the Meritage Resort & Spa south of downtown Napa discounted standard rooms to $99 from more than $350 per night. The resort also opened up a makeshift “Evacuee Lounge” in a meeting room where anyone—guests or not—could dine for free, play games, charge phones and watch the news.

“Our goal in the middle of this chaos was to provide a place where people didn’t have to worry about anything,” said former general manager Michael Palmer, who worked at Meritage until shortly after the fires.

As guests return to the region, they can attend benefit dinners or book hotels that are contributing a percentage of their fees to local benefit funds.

For instance, organizers of the Napa Valley Film Festival say they’re donating 10 percent of festival pass revenue from the Nov. 8-12 events to the community foundation’s relief fund. (The Alexander Valley Film Society collected $66,000 for the fire victims at its annual Alexander Valley Film Festival in October.)

Recovery is ongoing

Charred hills are visible behind field workers picking Syrah grapes during an October 25 harvest operation in Kenwood.

For those who do visit wine country in the next six months, it’s important to remember that recovery is ongoing.

On a practical level, this means occasional road closures and clean-up crews could impact travel times. On a deeper level, it means reminding oneself that any tasting room or front-desk employee could be among those who recently lost loved ones or their homes, and they could be grappling with grief and loss.

Yes, California’s wine country needs visitors to return, but the region also needs a major helping of compassion. After the fires broke out, locals hung signs that read: “The Love in the Air is Thicker than the Smoke.” That sentiment pairs nicely with a full glass of wine.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in northern Sonoma County. His hometown, Healdsburg, was spared by the wildfires, but many of his friends from Santa Rosa lost their homes.