A Love Letter to Northern California Wine Country

Reckoning with the loss of jobs, homes, businesses, and American beauty as the fires continue in Napa and Sonoma.

A Love Letter to Northern California Wine Country

The Glass Fire started just as winemakers in the Napa Valley were in the midst of harvest.

Photo by Jared Ropelato/Shutterstock

When I was a kid, about eight years old, my dad and I drove up to the Napa Valley with my grandmother, who was visiting us at our new home in Berkeley, California. We had recently moved west from New York, arriving in the early fall, when the bougainvillea turns crimson, oak trees begin to drop their acorns, and “naked lady” flowers shoot up from the ground in pearly shades of pink.

We drove up Highway 29 in our 1970 Datsun, taking the curves slowly and passing vines heavy with grapes, until we arrived at Sterling Vineyards, our destination for the afternoon. The winery, then only about 25 years old, had an attraction that could entertain three generations beyond the merlot it bottled: a gondola that carried guests up above the vineyards to a tasting room and a patio with big, broad views of the valley below.

My dad and grandmother tasted wine. We sat in the warm sun and took goofy photos. Even to a kid, it was obvious: We were not in New York City anymore. I remember feeling aware, as much as an eight-year-old can, of the abundance and beauty of this land. And thus was my introduction to wine country, a destination I’ve returned to hundreds of times in the past 30 years.

Last week, from my home in the Bay Area, I found myself yet again glued to Twitter tracking the news of another fire to hit wine country. This year has been unrelenting in so many ways, but raging wildfires in the midst of harvest season on top of a pandemic felt like cruelty on top of cruelty. Calistoga and St. Helena were evacuated, as were areas just east of Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County city devastated by the Tubbs Fire in 2017. At one point last week, more than 70,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Many had been evacuated by the Kincade Fire last year.

In 2018, the Napa Valley welcomed 3.85 million visitors who spent $2.23 billion. Travel and tourism is one of the region’s biggest industries, second only to wine.

As of today, 17 Napa Valley wineries have been damaged by the Glass Fire. Several hotels and resorts have also been damaged, including Calistoga Ranch and Meadowood Napa Valley, which is home to the Restaurant at Meadowood, one of the state’s most lauded fine-dining restaurants. As stories of the fire’s devastation started to emerge, my first thought went to the thousands of people employed in these industries. A stay at Meadowood is as remarkable as it is because of the hundreds of people the resort employs—as housekeepers, chefs, valets, dishwashers, servers, and more.

This year has been unrelenting in so many ways, but raging wildfires in the midst of harvest season on top of a pandemic felt like cruelty on top of cruelty.

Esther Mobley, wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote this week, “One week after the Glass Fire began its violent path through northern Napa Valley, one thing is certain. This is the most destructive fire America’s most famous wine region has ever faced.”

In 2020, wildfires across the state have burned more than 4 million acres, a staggering figure that’s double the previous record set in 2018. More than 30 people have died as a result of fires across the state. The Glass Fire is still burning, but firefighters are hoping that cooler temperatures and a chance of rain later this week will help with their containment efforts. Residents of Northern California are now all too familiar with AQI, go-bags, and burn scars—the terminology of our interminable wildfire season.

I was last in wine country in February. I rented a Silvercar convertible in San Francisco, drove across the Golden Gate Bridge with the top down, went a little off the beaten path on Highways 121 and 12, and rolled up to the reception at Meadowood at dusk. It was one of those “pinch-me” winter-in-California afternoons.

I drove up the road to my room, set in a canyon full of craggy old oak trees, and spent the evening next to the hearth at the Restaurant at Meadowood tasting aged amari and other after-dinner drinks. I was living “the good life,” the very thing I’d wanted to write about when I moved back to California in 2005. I found it here at Meadowood, and I found it in the region’s small restaurants and family-run wineries—and it was unmistakably Californian, filled with people who are deeply passionate about the land and its bounty.

I grieve for all that was lost in the fire. I grieve most for the lives lost and people displaced.

At some point last week rumors percolated across social media that Sterling, the winery of my gondola memories, had burned. The rumor isn’t true—Sterling stands. When the fire is out, I’ll be back to soak in hot mineral springs, hike across golden hills, enjoy meals fresh from the garden, and continue to tell the stories of people who love this land as much as I do.

If you want to help, buy Napa Valley wines. And donate to the Napa Valley Community Foundation and Sonoma Family Meal, organizations working to support members of the community who’ve been affected by the fires.

>>Next: What You Can Do to Help Wine Country Now—and Later

Julia Cosgrove is vice president and editor in chief of AFAR, the critically acclaimed travel media brand that makes a positive impact on the world through high-quality storytelling that inspires, enriches, and empowers travelers who care. Julia lives in Berkeley, California.
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