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California wine country open for business after fall wildfires

| Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, 12:33 p.m.
Residents of Coffey Park, a residential area in Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa, decorated surviving trees with hearts and posted signs of support after California's devastating October 2017 wildfires.
Washington Post
Residents of Coffey Park, a residential area in Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa, decorated surviving trees with hearts and posted signs of support after California's devastating October 2017 wildfires.

Chris Morano settled into the pillow-strewn bench in the lobby of the Sandman , surprisingly relaxed after all he has been through. Behind him, singed shrubs appeared through the hotel window. Near the swimming pool, a concrete wall bore the black eye of a fireball.

On the coffee table, by his knees, sat the most recent issue of Sonoma Magazine, which was dedicated to the October wildfires in Northern California. The cover featured a first responder standing on a mountain engulfed in flames. The headline read, “The Fight of Our Lives. What Happened and What's Next.”

“How we escaped the devastation is beyond me,” said Morano, the hotel's front office manager and chief concierge. “Mr. Sandman was watching over us.”

The Santa Rosa property was one of the lucky stars in the Wine Country constellation. The Diablo winds knocked debris and furniture into the pool. The power outage spoiled the food and beverages served for breakfast and at the pool bar. Ash and soot seeped into the guest rooms.

But the 45-year-old hotel and its months-old renovations survived. Four months after the natural disaster, the Sandman's reservation book was more equally divided between guests in town for wine sampling and hot-air ballooning and emergency relief workers.

Rising from the ashes

“People should visit and learn about the wildfires, but don't be maudlin about it,” said Chris, who lost his home and previous place of employment, the Fountaingrove Inn. “Celebrate that we are moving forward! Celebrate that we are rising from the ashes like the Phoenix!”

Since the autumnal fires, Sonoma and Napa counties have been in deep recovery mode while the grapevines have been sound asleep.

But come spring, the region will shift from restoration to renewal. The plants will bud, the winemakers will pour and the visitors will raise their glasses to California Wine Country, which needs a drink now more than ever.

The numbers are startling.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire, for short) reported 21 major wildfires in the area, including the Tubbs and Nuns fires, which consumed nearly 95,000 acres and 7,000 structures in Sonoma and Napa. The inferno wiped out entire neighborhoods, such as Coffey Park and Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa. More than 40 people lost their lives.

Months later, handmade signs thanking the firefighters still adorn lawns and roadsides. Glittery paper hearts and stars dangle from bare tree limbs. Conversations in grocery stores and parks, and even on airplanes, open with some variation of the question, “Did your home survive?”

Buoyant spirits

Matt Villano, who lives in Healdsburg, escaped the fires, but when the freelance journalist picked me up for a tour of Sonoma County, he informed me that the winemaker at our first stop had lost his residence, as had several employees.

Not far from the Sandman, I had seen slivers of damage — a demolished Kmart, a shattered Trader Joe's sign. But on the drive to Benovia Winery, we passed rows of spindly grapevines that resembled a boneyard of whales' tails. I remarked on their sickly state.

“Oh, the fires didn't come up here,” Matt said, mildly amused at my inability to tell the difference between a pruned vine and a scorched vine. “The surface area that was affected was really pretty small.”

The overall condition of the vineyards and the wineries has buoyed spirits.

According to Napa Valley Vintners , a nonprofit trade association, less than 10 percent of its 540 members suffered damage, and only one, Signorello Estate, had to close for repairs. (The winery will need at least two years to rebuild.)

Similarly, out of 425 wineries with public access, Sonoma County lost only one establishment. A sign outside the entrance to the Russian River Valley Estate reads, “Paradise Ridge is CLOSED to the public. Grounds & buildings are NOT safe.” The note directs visitors to its tasting room in nearby Kenwood.

As for the fate of the tiny globes clinging to the vines like teardrops, the wineries had harvested about 90 percent of the crop before Oct. 8; the grapes spent those harrowing days swishing around fermentation tanks.

Restaurants and hotels also avoided the brunt of the fires, with the exception of the Fountaingrove Inn, Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and Willi's Wine Bar, all of which burned to the ground.

Napa County reported no losses.

Open for business

“I am not going to diminish how devastating the fires were, but Wine Country is here,” said Terri Stark, who owned Willi's with her husband, Mark. “You can do everything you did before the wildfires.”

At Benovia Winery , Matt drove down a gravely lane that cut through the vineyard like a middle hair part. On an outdoor terrace, a quartet of women sipped wine, clearly relishing their time away from their dependents. Mike Sullivan, co-owner and winemaker at Benovia, joined us inside a baronial room that, if it could talk, would sound like Ian McKellen. (Most guests sample wines at the Ranch House, which was temporarily closed for renovations.)

After the fires, Benovia did not accept any wine-sampling appointments for two weeks.

“We didn't want people coming to taste wine with masks on,” Mike said.

When the winery reopened, it waived the $30 tasting fee and donated the funds, plus an extra $20 per visitor, to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund. By the end of the year, Benovia had raised $15,000 for the cause.

Since January, the winery has experienced a bump in guests. About a quarter of visitors inquire about the wildfires. Mike said all topics, even the difficult ones, are welcome at the wine-tasting table.

“We can't go a day without talking about the wildfires, but people don't need to be solemn or hold back,” he said. “If they want to show their support, do it by drinking some great Sonoma wine.”

Blackened trees and bushes

To behold the devastation, you have to go looking for it. You won't notice any evidence of the fires west of Highway 101 or in downtown Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Napa or Healdsburg. On the drive between Kenwood and Glen Ellen, and along Route 12, you might notice empty lots with a solitary chimney or mailbox, blackened trees and charred bushes, and cars burned to a crisp. But the ravaged sights appear in patches before disappearing.

I looked at the mountain behind us and traced the fire's descent, stopping at the point where the firefighters had overpowered the beast.

“The fire was marching right down,” said Lorenzo Giovacchini, a wine consultant at Ledson and a former San Francisco firefighter. “They dumped 500 gallons of water all day long.”

Unfortunately for Ledson, an image of a burned patio surfaced on social media and a rumor started to circulate that the Kenwood winery had gone down in flames. Eventually, the truth came out: The deck belonged to Paradise Ridge Winery and, after a thorough scrubbing of the windows and wood interior, Ledson was open.

No match for ‘LOVE'

Terri and Mark Stark have redefined the term “comfort food.” The new meaning: Meals that comfort diners who miss Willi's Wine Bar.

To stoke the hearth of memories, the Starks added some of the dishes from Willi's to the menus of their five surviving restaurants. At Bird & the Bottle in Santa Rosa, a “WWB” appears in front of the Liberty Farms pulled barbecue duck, the Tunisian roasted carrots and the wild arugula and endive salad.

“I can't let Willi's burn and be done,” Terri said of the first restaurant the couple opened 15 years ago. “This is a way to keep it living.”

Terri said they probably won't rebuild the popular gathering place, which occupied a roadhouse that was built in the late 1880s. “New construction would never do it justice,” she said. But if the Starks do open a new drinking-and-dining spot, they have a few heirlooms they can use for the decor: The horseshoe that graced the patio doorway of Willi's and a paper coaster with three burn marks.

The fire that stomped out Willi's also took down Paradise Ridge Winery . But the blaze was no match for LOVE, a set of 12-foot-tall letters that are part of the estate's sculpture garden.

“It has become a symbol of resilience,” said Rene Byck, who runs the business with his sister and father.

The wildfires pulverized nine of the estate's buildings, including the winemaking facility, the tasting room and the wedding venue where about 1,000 couples have sealed the deal. Amazingly, the three llamas and the 30-piece collection of wood and metal sculptures were still standing.

“It's not all doom and gloom for us,” Rene said. “The nature and the beauty are still here, and the art.”

The Bycks plan to welcome visitors back this summer with a temporary tasting room in a former shed, and they hope to hold their grand reopening in 18 months. Rene said he wants to reinstall the exhibition about Kanaye Nagasawa, the legendary Japanese samurai turned winemaker who lived in Santa Rosa. (On Rene's wish list: Finding his samurai sword in the rubble.) He is also toying with the idea of creating a display about the wildfires that left an indelible mark on Paradise.

State park spared

“There were terrible winds and a week of hot weather,” said Lorraine, a volunteer at the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.

Our group was standing by two concrete silos, listening to Lorraine describe another historical conflagration in Sonoma County. In 1913, a fire engulfed Wolf House, the residence-in-progress of the famous writer and his wife, Charmian. After seeing San Francisco burn in the 1906 earthquake, London selected nonflammable materials for the couple's new home. But one August evening, workmen tossed linseed oil-soaked rags into the dining room fireplace. The Londons watched their four-story dream house combust into a nightmare.

Docents lead tours of the Wolf House ruins (or you can go solo).

When the state park staff learned of the wildfires, they attempted to remove as many artifacts as possible for safekeeping.

“They couldn't get the desks over the barrier,” said Stewart, another docent, who showed me around the kitchen and stone dining room.

The wildfires never reached the park, and all of London's belongings are back home, including the Remington Noiseless typewriter that fell silent too soon.

Memories held in ‘Fire Wall'

When Jeff Nathanson received orders to evacuate, he went to his safe place, the Museums of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa. Here, the museum's executive director found water, power, WiFi and a creative outlet. In response to the tragedy, Jeff and his staff hatched a multipronged program, some elements of which required resident participation.

“We wanted to promote creative expression and healing,” he said of the cathartic plan.

About a month after the natural disaster, the staff reached out to the community, asking for contributions to its Fire Collection, which the museum describes as “a permanent historical record of one of the most important and pivotal events in Sonoma County history.” The cultural institution has received more than 60 submissions, many of which will appear in an exhibit commemorating the first anniversary of the wildfires. Among the objects: The skeleton of a grand piano, Coffey Park street signs, a melted street lamp from Fountaingrove and a video of the howling winds and raging fire at Coursey Graves winery.

For its website, the museum created the Fire Wall, an online scrapbook of photos, paintings, children's drawings, poetry and other poignant responses to the tragedy. (The latest tally: About 80 pieces and growing.)

“The personal stories and accounts convey the intensity and emotion of that experience,” Jeff said. “It's interesting to look at what remains.”

As far as I can see, California Wine Country does.

Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post travel writer.

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