We check in on this Cal­i­for­nian wine re­gion af­ter last year’s fires

Bush fires may have swept through Sonoma last Oc­to­ber, but the North­ern Cal­i­for­nian wine re­gion is back in busi­ness.

Halliday - - Contents - words MA­RINA KAY pho­tog­ra­phy VIN­CENT LONG

THERE’S A NEW en­ergy in Sonoma; one of re­newal and re­gen­er­a­tion. Along the Sonoma wine coun­try route, from down­town to Healds­burg, all the way to coastal Fort Ross, you’ll see vi­brant vine­yards and fog-shrouded red­woods and pines, hardly notic­ing the fire scars along the way. Those you do see – black­ened trees, singed palms and charred hill­sides – are strikes from the 2017 North­ern Cal­i­for­nia bush fires that raged through much of Oc­to­ber last year.

De­scribed as the dead­li­est in the state’s his­tory – and costli­est, ac­cord­ing to in­sur­ance of­fi­cials – the firestorm be­came 21 ma­jor fires that burned over three weeks, claim­ing at least 44 lives. The pri­mary cause of the de­struc­tion was strong Santa Ana winds that downed trees and ig­nited power lines, caus­ing flames to blaze through Napa, Men­do­cino and Sonoma coun­ties. The in­ferno was fi­nally con­tained on Oc­to­ber 31.

Sonoma was deeply af­fected, es­pe­cially the city of Santa Rosa, where thou­sands lost build­ings and homes. Of the county’s 495 winer­ies, the tragedy tested Par­adise Ridge Win­ery, where the cel­lar and Rus­sian River tast­ing room were de­stroyed. The busi­ness is sur­vived by its satel­lite Ken­wood tast­ing room, out­door sculp­ture gar­den and 15-acre vine­yard. Plans to re­build are un­der­way. Wine­mak­ing may take up only six per cent of Sonoma’s one mil­lion acres, but ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study by Sonoma County Wine­grow­ers, 2012 wine pro­duc­tion gen­er­ated US $13.4 bil­lion for the re­gion. And with 85 per cent of the vine­yards in Sonoma County be­ing fam­ily owned, these fire-re­lated losses are even more heart­felt.

Fire claimed the cen­tury-old fam­ily home and some hill­side vines at Gund­lach Bund­schu, Cal­i­for­nia’s old­est fam­ily-run win­ery. Vis­it­ing it to­day, you sense a busi­ness in re­cov­ery mode. Rows of green, leafy vines, gar­dens and sand­stone struc­tures greet you prior to en­ter­ing the tast­ing room, where small groups stand by a long bar pour­ing 2017 gewurz­traminer, 2015 pinot noir and 2014 caber­net sau­vi­gnon. Es­tab­lished in 1858, Gun Bun, as the win­ery is af­fec­tion­ately known, rests at the cross­roads of four US viti­cul­tural ar­eas: Carneros, Napa Val­ley, Sonoma Val­ley and Sonoma Coast. Cooled by Pa­cific breezes, its Rhine­farm es­tate spe­cialises in chardon­nay, made with a com­bi­na­tion of grapes from 45- and 12-year-old vines, plus caber­net sau­vi­gnon and mer­lot. Po­si­tioned at num­ber two on the Win­kler scale (a scale that cat­e­gorises the world’s wine-grow­ing ar­eas ac­cord­ing to tem­per­a­ture, with Re­gion 1 be­ing the coolest), the win­ery – on par with Bordeaux – be­lieves it can pro­duce the best Bordeaux va­ri­etals in the state.

Tast­ing flights are also served in the Vista court­yard, shaded by olive trees, over­look­ing a vast pond. It har­bours Sonoma County’s first ‘floa­to­voltaic’ sys­tem, with so­lar pan­els pro­vid­ing 100 per cent of the power to the win­ery’s wa­ter recla­ma­tion sys­tem. Here, last

Wine­mak­ing may take up only six per cent of Sonoma’s one mil­lion acres, but... 2012 wine pro­duc­tion gen­er­ated US $13.4 bil­lion for the re­gion.

And with 85 per cent of the vine­yards in Sonoma County be­ing fam­ily owned, these fire-re­lated losses are even more heart­felt.

Oc­to­ber, he­li­copters hov­ered over­head, fill­ing buck­ets for wa­ter drops to quell the fiery land­scape. Stead­fast, the sixth-gen­er­a­tion busi­ness re­opened to the pub­lic just two weeks later.

As you con­tinue along State High­way 12, through Glen Ellen to­ward Ken­wood, large ban­ners cur­rently thank first re­spon­ders for keep­ing their com­mu­ni­ties safe. Some 11,000 fire­fight­ers from across the US and Aus­tralia an­swered the call to brave the in­ferno. While so­cial me­dia re­ported that var­i­ous winer­ies had burned to the ground, many of the ru­mours proved un­true. Such was the case with Led­son Win­ery and Vine­yards, where the Gothic cas­tle with its re­gal tast­ing room is still stand­ing, thanks to the tough work of a round-the-clock fire crew. Visit for its award-win­ning caber­net sau­vi­gnon, zin­fan­del and chardon­nay.

Led­son’s vine­yards are in­tact too. Some ir­ri­gation sys­tem lines were lost and pine trees burned, but the grape vines served as nat­u­ral fire­breaks, re­sis­tant to the flames, sur­rounded by low-cut ground cover in be­tween and around the vine rows. Although some of their caber­net blocks couldn’t be used be­cause of smoke taint – an ashy flavour im­posed on the grapes – much of the har­vest had al­ready been col­lected and stored in a win­ery ware­house com­plex in Sonoma, which was ac­ces­si­ble and with power. Led­son’s Aus­tralian wine­maker An­drew Bilenkij ex­plained the main is­sue at the win­ery was mon­i­tor­ing its in­door and out­door at­mos­pheres, as car­bon diox­ide was in­creas­ing in­side and smoke out­side. En­sur­ing staff and fam­i­lies were safe was the chief con­cern.

Plumes of smoke en­gulfed Dry Creek Val­ley near Healds­burg, home to Fer­rari-Carano Vine­yards and Win­ery, one of the largest wine pro­duc­ers in the county with 1400 acres planted across six ap­pel­la­tions. To­day the air is clear, and the planted vine­yards of sau­vi­gnon blanc, zin­fan­del and mal­bec are thriv­ing. First im­pres­sions bring to mind Tus­cany, with its rolling hills, row of cy­press trees and grand villa fea­tur­ing flour­ishes of Ital­ian mar­ble, Aus­tralian lace­wood and African gran­ite. Lo­cated here are the tast­ing rooms and wine shop. The fires spared Fer­rari-Carano, whose staff helped con­trol the blaze. “Our main­te­nance man­ager spent four days fight­ing fire in Alexan­der Val­ley at the neigh­bour­ing Faye Ranch with our wa­ter trucks, help­ing emer­gency ser­vices nav­i­gate the area, and put­ting out spot fires,” the win­ery stated.

“We also re­filled fire­fight­ers’ wa­ter sup­ply.”

Hav­ing earned its Cal­i­for­nia Sus­tain­able Wine­grow­ing Al­liance cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in 2015, Fer­rari-Carano made use of its ef­fi­cient en­ergy con­sump­tion means that in­clude wa­ter man­age­ment, soil man­age­ment and bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion. Prac­tices such as these put the county in good stead to meet Sonoma County Wine­grow­ers’ goal of be­com­ing the first 100 per cent cer­ti­fied sus­tain­able wine re­gion over the com­ing year.

Get­ting there.

Sonoma is a one-hour drive from San Fran­cisco and about a 20-minute drive from Napa.

Stay.

The Gaige House + Ryokan

In cen­tral Glen Ellen, the Gaige House +

Ryokan is a re­lax­ing re­treat af­ter a day of wine tast­ing. The prop­erty’s main build­ing was built in the late 1800s; its Zen Suites were added in 2006, which, dur­ing the post-fire cleanup (the inn suf­fered smoke and high-wind dam­age), re­ceived a full re­fresh. The beau­ti­fully ap­pointed feng shui-in­spired creek­side ac­com­mo­da­tion fea­tures spa­cious seat­ing ar­eas with Ja­panese cast-iron tea ser­vice, en­suite bath­rooms over­look­ing zen rock gar­den atri­ums and pri­vate pa­tios with deck chairs. Lo­cal vint­ners – Scher­meis­ter Win­ery and B Wise win­ery – pour wine every evening. A sake se­lec­tion is of­fered too. There’s also a pool and med­i­ta­tion deck. the­gaige­house.com

h2ho­tel

Steps away from Healds­burg’s 19th-cen­tury plaza, the sus­tain­able h2ho­tel of­fers 36 eco­con­scious rooms. They pro­vided shel­ter for a com­mu­nity in need last year. Circe Sher, co­part­ner of Pi­azza Hos­pi­tal­ity, said that dur­ing last Oc­to­ber, more than 150 nights at their h2ho­tel were oc­cu­pied by first re­spon­ders, in­clud­ing mem­bers of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion. Open­ing soon is Har­mon Guest House, a bou­tique ho­tel ad­join­ing h2ho­tel via a pri­vate walk­way. h2ho­tel.com

Dine.

Top din­ing pairs well with wine tast­ings. Glen Ellen Star is in walk­ing dis­tance of The Gaige House + Ryokan. Evenings are busy, serv­ing ex­cel­lent piz­zas, wood-roasted vegeta­bles such as cau­li­flower with tahini, al­monds and sumac, plus hearty mains such as the wood-roasted whole branzino (sea bass), and riga­toni with morels. glenel­len­star.com While driv­ing from Glen Ellen to Healds­burg, stop for a snack at The Bar­low mar­ket. Around 30 shops vie for your at­ten­tion. En­joy a latte at lofty Tay­lor Lane Or­ganic Cof­fee, a tast­ing flight at MacPhail Tast­ing Lounge, or a kom­bucha at The Nec­tary juice bar.

the­bar­low.net Hus­band and wife team Mark and Terri Stark of Stark Re­al­ity Restau­rants lost Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa to the bush fires. In Healds­burg they run Bravas, which serves tapas and lo­cal and Span­ish wines.

starkrestau­rants.com Spoon­bar ex­cels in Cal­i­for­nian cui­sine. h2ho­tel’s ground-level restau­rant uses lo­cal, sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents in its dishes that range from grilled oc­to­pus to smoked gouda smash burger to tuna tartare. At the time of the fires, the restau­rant pro­vided spe­cially priced meals to first re­spon­ders. spoon­bar.com

Gund­lach Bund­schu, Cal­i­for­nia’s old­est fam­ily-run win­ery.

(far left): Led­son Win­ery and Vine­yards, with its Gothic cas­tle and re­gal tast­ing room.(left): Led­son’s Aus­tralian wine­maker An­drew Bilenkij.(below): Fer­rari-Carano Vine­yards and Win­ery is one of the largest wine pro­duc­ers in the county.

(left and below left):The Gaige House + Ryokan in cen­tral Glen Ellen.(below, cen­tre and bot­tom): The eco-sus­tain­able h2ho­tel.

(right and below right): Glen Ellen Star is in walk­ing dis­tance of The GaigeHouse + Ryokan. (below): En­joy 30 shopsat The Bar­low mar­ket.

(above and above right): h2ho­tel’s ground-level restau­rant Spoon­bar ex­cels in Cal­i­for­nian cui­sine.

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