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In wake of Kincade fire, Sonoma wine country lifestyle is very much intact

Time:2020-01-23 00:47wine - Red wine life health Click:

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The late fall day is cool and foggy with light rain falling, weather seemingly more suited for San Francisco than the usually sunny Healdsburg, in good traffic maybe an hour’s drive north of the Bay Area.

On a guided tour of Jordan Vineyard and Winery, in the Alexander Valley of California’s Sonoma County, a cloak of ghostly mist shrouding a hillside lifts just enough to reveal a picture-perfect flock of turkeys, dozens and dozens of toms and hens and their chicks, scrounging and feeding on whatever tidbits of food they could find in the richly fertile grasslands.

And not a single bird stands on scorched earth.

October, portions of Sonoma County burned, the Kincade fire, it is called, perhaps caused by a downed powerline near Geyserville. The images on the news were of Sonoma’s skies aglow in bright red and orange, embers raining down like fireworks. As the smoke and flames swirled, reports circulated worldwide that California’s wine country was pretty much annihilated.

But that is far, very far, from the entire story.

According to Sonoma County Tourism, the Kincade fire damaged almost 78,000 acres, less than 8% of Sonoma County’s million or so acres, and most of that was vegetation in the mountains and wild land in the northeastern quadrant of the county. The places where most tourists go — the wineries, the beaches, the redwood groves — remain untouched.

In the weeks just before the first sparks flew, the wine grape harvest was 92% complete, with an additional 3% harvested before the evacuations of Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor, all small towns in the Sonoma County corridor.

Embroidered into the fabric of Sonoma are some 425 wineries open to the public. All but two escaped the fire’s wrath, the Spire Collection at Field Stone Vineyard, whose winery and barn were damaged, and then Soda Rock Winery.

Most of the images in the news were of Soda Rock burning, almost all of it except its historic barn going up in flames. And only a week after the last fires were extinguished, that’s where owners Ken and Diane Wilson reopened the tasting room.

The 150-year-old barn is a little chilly on the rainy day I drop by for a tasting and find Ken Wilson, who is eager to talk about the fire. As he speaks, a few other guests and I sample his Kenneth Carl Brut, a sparkling wine crafted with grapes from Mendocino County just to the north of Sonoma County.

“I didn’t look back,” says Wilson, taking a sip of the Brut and pointing out that most of his wine inventory was stored offsite and thus saved from the fires. “I started counting my blessings. We’re trying to keep life alive and even just opened a tasting room in Healdsburg. We’re going to rebuild but it’s still a ways off.”

That’s just it. Life in Sonoma is very much alive, a thought echoed by Brian Sommer, manager of the Hotel Les Mars in Healdsburg.

“Not one structure caught fire in the city of Healdsburg,” says Sommer, noting that some guests cancelled their reservations in thinking the worst when the complete opposite was true. “Firefighters saved the structures. They saved our way of life.”

Sonoma’s natural beauty and wine industry have been luring wine travelers for decades, but the Kincade fire, like the devastating Tubbs fire of 2017, made huge ripples in its tourism. Now, says Sommer, everyone needs to know that the wine country lifestyle is still very much intact.

“We want people to come for the wine country experience,” says Sommer. “To taste it, feel it, see it, take it to heart and to soul, this way of life. We want them to come and be a part of the life here. If you have reservations, don’t cancel or you’ll miss out on a great wine and cultural experience.”

A few weeks back I spent a few days with a friend in Healdsburg, the heart of Sonoma’s wine country, and she and I set out to visit several wineries from the Hotel Les Mars, where we stayed. Our first stop is Mauritson Wines.

Clay Mauritson, its owner and founder, has been in Sonoma through seven generations of farmers who first homesteaded here as immigrants from Sweden in 1868. Since then, his family has grown grapes and raised cattle and sheep, with the winery opening in 2014.

There was no fire damage here where we try several wines, among them a very cold, very fragrant, very floral sauvignon blanc and a slightly fruity and spicy zinfandel from the Rockpile label.

“What I love about our wine is the when and where it came from,” Mauritson says. “How amazing is it that every single bottle of wine has a story? This is one of the most unique, spectacular grape-growing regions in the world.”

We soon move on to Arista Winery, where we meet Mark McWilliams, who, with his brother, Ben, own the winery. Arista primarily produces pinot noir and chardonnay on land also inhabited by various critters including chickens, goats, sheep and a couple of donkeys named Darla and Daisy.

“The name Arista is a Greek word, and its root means ‘excellence,’ “ McWilliams says. “It means the best. We use the low and slow old-school methods of making wine.”

We listen to McWilliams, a friend of Mauritson’s, as we taste several wines, including Two Birds Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir and Perli Vineyard Chardonnay.

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