October 8, 2017, was a quintessential Indian summer day in Northern California. It was hot and gorgeous — perfect weather for an afternoon of wine tasting in Napa or Sonoma. But the conditions also made for uncharacteristically dry and swift winds. Gusts were so strong that a single spark could turn into a massive firestorm.
Such was the case on that fateful evening when a unique set of uncontrollable circumstances resulted in one of the largest wildfires in California’s history. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, more than 245,000 acres burned, 90,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes, 8,900 structures were destroyed, 185 people were hospitalized and 44 people died during the weeklong ordeal that devastated the region.
While the embers cooled and the displaced attempted to discover remnants of their lives in the ashes, the community moved to action. Nonprofits planned benefit concerts. Health-care practitioners donated their time. Politicians comforted the victims. Restaurateurs fed the hungry. The hashtags #SonomaStrong and #NapaStrong filled social media feeds as the slow process of rebuilding neighborhoods began.
Now businesses from wineries to catering companies are realizing that the tourism that makes the area thrive has been greatly jeopardized. But farmers, vintners, chefs, florists and shopkeepers want you to know that Sonoma and Napa are stronger than ever. The communities are open and ready for your business.
When you arrive in the area, the first thing you’ll notice is how quickly Mother Nature has taken over. During the fires, the owner of Poetry Inn, Cliff Lede, didn’t know if his gorgeous boutique hotel (with only five suites) was going to make it. Perched on a hilltop above the Silverado Trail, Poetry Inn was in direct contact with the Stags Leap District fires.
For days, there was so much smoke that Lede and his employees didn’t know if the Inn was still there, but thanks to the diligent work of a crew of inmate firefighters, the hotel survived.
Grass now grows where the fire burned. Mold and moss that was killing the region’s trees was burned off and the trees are flourishing. There is a renewed sense of hope.
Thankfully, similar stories can be told across Wine Country. In Sonoma, two beloved neighboring wineries, Gundlach Bundschu and Scribe, spent the first two days of the fires anxious that their vineyards and tasting rooms would be scorched. Firefighters were spread thin dealing with flames at more populated areas, and yet, in the nick of time, a crew arrived to save them both. The Bundschu family lost its private home, so support, in the form of tasting room visitors, is needed now more than ever.
The fire came within 30 feet to the state’s oldest winery, Buena Vista, founded in 1857. Leading up to the fires, Buena Vista boasted as many as 6,000 monthly visitors; however, the number of people who have booked tastings lately has drastically dropped. Tours and tastings at Buena Vista, including in the luxe bubble lounge from owner Jean-Charles Boisset, are an educational, memorable and fun experience.
While the majority of area Forbes Travel Guide award-winning hotels, including Four-Stars Meadowood Napa Valley, Carneros Resort and Spa and Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort, were closed the weeks surrounding the fires, they are back open and looking forward to helping you create amazing memories in 2018.
Meadowood, in fact, is already touting an Ultimate Platinum Experience package for the famed BottleRock music festival (May 25 to 27) that consists of overnight accommodations, all-access event passes, daily breakfast, amenities and much more.
But don’t wait for the spring to visit. The weather is wonderfully mild during the winter (New Year’s Day saw a comfortable 66-degree high), the area is teeming with events (not only is it cabernet season, but the Napa Truffle Festival and Restaurant Week take place in January) and resorts are making it nearly irresistible to explore the region.
With Calistoga Ranch’s Napa Valley Spirit deal, for instance, you get a complimentary third day with the purchase of two. Use the extra time to get that canyon stone massage you’ve wanted to try, indulge in a meal from one of the world’s best chefs at Five-Star The French Laundry or stop by a winery like Ram’s Gate or Landmark Vineyards.
The wildfires delayed the debut of Archer Hotel Napa, but the downtown property is now open in the up-and-coming First Street area, bringing with it a Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant; spacious, modern rooms; and a rooftop spa and pool.
Another downtown option is the historic Napa River Inn. The boutique hotel has a prime riverfront location that puts you within walking distance of Main Street and its shops and eateries. Though, you won’t stray far with Morimoto Napa and live music venue Silo’s onsite.
An additional new draw to Napa is Las Alcobas, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Napa Valley. Opened in March 2017, the St. Helena property affords stunning vineyard vistas, since it sits next to Beringer Vineyards and Estate. Don’t miss a meal at the hotel’s Acacia House, celebrity chef Chris Cosentino’s seasonal California restaurant.
Elsewhere in the region, try Five-Star Solage, An Auberge Resort in Calistoga. It’s a destination for its private studios and suites, popular Solbar restaurant and restorative mud treatments at its Four-Star Spa Solage. In Rutherford, Five-Star Auberge du Soleil is our go-to option for its spectacular restaurant with mesmerizing valley-floor views, sculpture garden, picturesque pool and spa that’s a relaxation haven. Our favorite Yountville pick is eco-friendly Bardessono Hotel and Spa, which offers farm-fresh fare at Lucy Restaurant & Bar and seasonal spa services. Near Carneros, The Meritage Resort and Spa will keep you busy with a tour of its own vineyards, hot-air balloon rides, a luxurious lounge/bowling alley, a tasting room and much more.
If you decide to go wine tasting in Sonoma, check into The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa near Sonoma Plaza. The hotel is surrounded by more than 200 wineries and does its own daily tasting in the lobby as well. The sleek, contemporary hotel provides a break from your wine-fueled itinerary with its Spa at Renaissance Sonoma and heated outdoor pool. Or try the intimate, old-world Hotel Les Mars, which gives you an elegant escape right next to the charming shops of Healdsburg. Be sure to nosh at its wine-friendly Chalkboard Restaurant.
If unseasonable chills should come during your Wine Country visit over the next few months, rest easy knowing that a number of places not only have fireplaces, but plenty of warm, we’re-glad-you-stopped-by smiles to go around, too.