Naturally I was also concerned that everything in Sonoma County burned -- that was the picture painted by news reports, anyway -- but a friend who often travels here for work convinced me otherwise, telling me that I have to see it to believe it. Together we visit, flying into San Francisco and then renting a car and driving for endless miles through the Sonoma countryside, with Healdsburg as our home base.
Our all-too-brief three-night stay in Healdsburg was at the Hotel Les Mars, one of those quintessential wine country inns complete with French furnishings including four-poster beds, bright colors and rich antiques. It's just a block from Healdsburg Plaza. It is here we meet Brian Sommer, its very much hands-on and friendly general manager. After several conversations, I also discover that he is chair of the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District. It's a small town. Almost everyone is connected to tourism and wears many hats.
When I ask Sommer about those boiling "rivers of wine," he laughs and says he hadn't heard of such a thing.
"Ninety-eight percent of the 2017 vintage was already in," he points out, adding that tourism took a direct hit nonetheless because of the perception cast by news reports that Sonoma and Napa were pretty much wiped off the map.
He, along with everyone else even remotely connected to tourism, wants the visitors to come back. While the Hotel Les Mars has always offered personalized service for its guests, he's hoping it will be part of the lure to bring back tourists who might otherwise stay away after the wildfires. A hundred wineries are within a 10-minute drive of his inn, he says, and the hotel partners with Silver Service and Healdsburg Tours to offer tours of the wine country in luxury vehicles including Land Rover, Mercedes and Tesla, with personally crafted itineraries. The thing is, he says, while wine is the megastar of Sonoma, there is so much to do in addition to winetasting and tours, including canoeing or kayaking the Russian River, the softly flowing river that cuts a scenic swath through Sonoma; hot air ballooning; exploring art galleries; meandering the coast near Bodega Bay and Jenner; and dining out. It's all still here, he assures me.
That evening I dine at Valette, a Healdsburg restaurant recommended by Sommer, and partake of a wine-paired tasting menu with courses such as crispy-skin striped bass and an apple-glazed pork porterhouse that sent my taste buds into orbit. For a Sunday night, it's crowded. My waiter says it's mostly locals, but he is confident tourists will return when word gets out that Sonoma hasn't gone up in smoke.
My friend and I set out the next morning to visit Honor Mansion, a charming and very peaceful vineyard inn hidden away on a tree-lined street in Healdsburg. Years before I had stayed at the inn, and owner Steve Fowler welcomes me again with open arms. As he bustles about serving breakfast, I strike up a conversation with a couple named Ron and Jane who are seated in a sunny window booth.
Ron is an energy consultant, and Jane had an embroidery business. They are in their mid-70s, but look much younger. They are evacuees from nearby Santa Rosa, where the worst of the fires, in their words hot enough to melt jewelry and warp cast iron, devastated entire neighborhoods, including their home and Jane's home-based business. Honor Mansion has been their home since.
"We're putting in a bid on a home, and we can start over," Jane says. "Some of our friends who are in their 80s can't and have moved away."
"I think that 30 to 40 percent of those who lost homes will take the money and run," Ron says, adding that some of their neighbors, defeated by fire and insurance issues, have already permanently left for Florida and Texas. But Sonoma County is home for them, and they are staying put.