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