This past Monday was a glorious afternoon on the plaza in downtown Healdsburg. Not a cloud in the sky. Brisk, fresh air to inhale. Over by the fountain, a toddler busily placed leaf after leaf on the surface of the water and watched his “boats” float away. Under the gazebo, a gaggle of teenagers strummed guitars. Across Healdsburg Avenue, inside Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, servers were buzzing around the dining room preparing for the dinner crowd. Through the windows at nearby stores, you could see shoppers buying shoes, clothes, and locally made art and knickknacks as souvenirs to bring back home.
Yes, this is the same Healdsburg that was threatened by the raging Kincade Fire last month. And, yes, that same fire destroyed more than 140 homes and most of a historic winery as it churned through nearly 78,000 acres of a largely unpopulated area in the northeast corner of the county. There’s no question that the fire harmed Sonoma County; days of forced power and gas shutdowns from the regional utility affected the entire San Francisco Bay Area.
Cal Fire declared the Kincade Fire 100 percent contained on November 6. A few days before that, this part of wine country was back to being as beautiful and vibrant as ever.
In Geyserville, Healdsburg, and Windsor, the three communities closest to the fire, small businesses run by local artisans are open for business. Restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall taco stands to the Michelin-starred Single Thread, are cranking out delicious meals. Heck, even Soda Rock Winery, which lost nearly all its modern production and visitor-oriented facilities in the blaze, is back to hosting weekend tastings in a 100-year-old barn that survived.
“People have a tendency to see images of burning houses or hear, ‘Natural disaster!’ and think the worst,” says Dave Hagele, Healdsburg’s mayor and a long-time resident. “The truth is that while this fire did a number on a whole bunch of wild land to the north and east, the part of wine country that people know and love is carrying on with business as usual.”
Understanding “the burn zone”
Perhaps the best way to explain the situation in Sonoma County is with simple math. There are 1,131,520 acres of land in Sonoma County, and about 78,000 of those were burned. That means less than 7 percent of the land in Sonoma County was affected by the Kincade Fire. Which means that more than 93 percent of the county was unharmed and today looks exactly as it did on October 22, the day before the fire started.
Sam Bilbro, owner and winemaker at Idlewild Wines, was frustrated with some of the negative press the region was getting after the fire, so he created an Instagram post that tells this story with a picture. The image depicts a map of the county with the burn zone delineated in red. Compared to the rest of the map, the red part is minuscule.
“You look at this map and you realize the fire was a really small part of Sonoma County,” he says. “Our cities, our forests in West County, our coastline, and the Sonoma Valley are as they’ve always been.”
View this post on Instagram A post shared by IDLEWILD WINES (@idlewildwines) on Nov 1, 2019 at 8:58am PDT
Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, echoes this sentiment.
“If you were to check out webcams in Sonoma [County] right now, you’d see visitors from around the world enjoying everything wine country has to offer at one of the very best times to visit,” she says. “Fall is three months long. These fires were occurrences that happened over a few days. Judging us on the basis of those few days is [neither] accurate [nor] fair.”
At the end of the day, the best way for travelers to support Sonoma County in the aftermath of the Kincade Fire is, quite simply, to visit.
Shelley Rafanelli, the fourth-generation winemaker at A. Rafanelli Winery in the Dry Creek Valley, says it doesn’t matter how long people stay or what they do when they’re here, so long as they come.
“Say hello, spend money in our wineries and restaurants and stores, and support all of the things that make this part of the world so special,” says Rafanelli. “We’re here. We’re ready. We’re waiting.”
Planning a trip to Sonoma County
After swinging by Soda Rock, head to the tiny town of Geyserville, where the Kincade Fire started. Sidle up to the bar for a tasting at Zialena, a family-owned winery that didn’t suffer damages but was right up against the burn zone. An additional great spot to taste: Locals, which has dozens of wines from small regional producers. Be sure to grab lunch at Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria, which stayed open during the fire so chef Dino Bugica could prepare free pizzas to feed first responders at the front lines. If you’re thirsty for craft cocktails, wander down the main drag to Bugica’s bar, the Geyserville Gun Club.
In Healdsburg, check out Idlewild, where Bilbro brings in pop-up food events most Friday nights. Another way to support Healdsburg: buying from local shop owners, many of whom are struggling due to lost revenue from the evacuation and subsequent days the town was without power or gas. Market377, owned and operated by local entrepreneur Michelle Schultz, has crafty gifts that make great stocking stuffers. Dragonfly, an organic flower farm and full-service florist, celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2020.
Healdsburg has become a huge food destination, too. While Single Thread usually requires reservations in advance, Valette restaurant is a bit more accessible and almost always has walk-up seats at the bar. When you go, be sure to introduce yourself to chef Dustin Valette’s father, Bob, a familiar presence at the restaurant—he is an aerial firefighter and was one of the heroes who dropped water and retardant on the flames to save the town.
No visit to the area would be complete without a stop in Windsor, where firefighters made perhaps the bravest stand, preventing the flames from sweeping through the town. Here, two beverage-industry hot spots enable visitors to support first responders directly: St. Florian’s Brewery, which is owned by Windsor fire captain Aron Levin and donates a minimum of 5 percent of all sales to fire-related and community-based organizations; and Grand Cru Custom Crush, a collaborative production and tasting facility that is co-owned (and was built by) Healdsburg firefighter Robert Morris.
Also worth visiting: Russian River Brewing Company, where earlier this month owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo announced a re-launch of a special Sonoma Pride IPA from which all proceeds will go to Kincade Fire charities.
If you don’t eat at Russian River, consider dining at Sweet T’s, a barbecue-style restaurant in the Safeway shopping center just east of the Windsor Plaza. The original location of this restaurant burned in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, and owners Dennis and Ann Tussey reopened at the new spot earlier this year.
Giving back, one bottle at a time
If you can’t make it to northern Sonoma County in person, there are other ways to support the region’s recovery. Wine Road Northern Sonoma County, an industry organization consisting of wineries in the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys, last week unveiled a promotion for $5 shipping on each 12-bottle case from member wineries. To get the deal, customers simply must use the hashtag, #SipSonoma. There also are plenty of places to donate to charitable organizations supporting victims; for a rundown of most of them, check out the NorCal Fire donation list.
One particular charity doing great things in the region: Corazón Healdsburg. The group has set up a “Unity Fund” to provide direct assistance to those who lost their homes in the Kincade Fire. Donate directly or get more information.
Matt Villano, a frequent contributor to AFAR, lives in Healdsburg and was evacuated for five days due to the Kincade Fire.