After fall's wildfire scare, visitors will find Napa and Sonoma pleasantly normal
So many wineries, so little time. Napa Valley’s vine-covered hillsides stretched before us as photographer Jim Edwards and I drove along the region’s central artery, California 29, a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that borders vineyards of some of the best-known wineries in America — Mondavi, Inglenook, Beringer, Beaulieu.
I’d been in San Francisco and decided to add a few wine-tasting days to my itinerary. I wanted to visit Napa and Sonoma’s valleys to sample wine, of course, but also to reassure myself that one of my favorite California destinations had escaped damage from October’s Kincade wildfire and power shutdown.
I relaxed about 90 minutes into the drive. Everything in Napa seemed pleasantly normal. The Wine Train rumbled down the tracks, cars buzzed in and out of parking lots, visitors walked the grounds of various wineries while carrying full glasses.
The same was true in Sonoma, where the city’s historic plaza was decorated for the holidays. More than 100,000 lights twinkled in the 8-acre park, framing City Hall and the visitors center.
The Kincade blaze occurred more than an hour northwest. Although it caused smoky air and drifting ash here, none of the vineyards or facilities burned.
One vineyard was destroyed — Healdsburg’s Soda Rock Winery — about 50 miles north of the cities of Napa and Sonoma. But the Kincade fire mainly impacted unoccupied rural areas — beyond where most visitors go — in the mountains of Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties.
The PG&E power shutoffs, officially known as PSPS (Public Service Power Shutdown events) frustrated residents, workers and business owners. But by the time I arrived last month, they had become the butt of jokes (one police department released a map showing possible shutdown areas that had the entire state marked in red) and had become an accepted, albeit troublesome, way of life.
Natural light, candles and a generator
Recent rains may lessen the need for shutdowns, but even when the power is off, wineries are coping.
I visited three tasting rooms Nov. 19 during a one-day shutdown. No one missed a beat — or a pour. One winery with large vineyard-view windows operated with the lights off, one used candles — a romantic touch — and another turned on its generator.
I chatted with servers at Jessup Cellars in Yountville, which calls itself “the friendliest tasting room in wine country.” On weekends, “it’s like a party in here,” one said of the facility, which combines an art gallery and tasting room.
The goal at Jessup during a power shutdown? “We want to make people happy and give them the service and experience they expect,” said Frederick Boelen,tasting room manager. “We closed a little early once during a shutdown, but that’s all.”
At Sonoma County’s Chateau St. Jean, a picturesque wine castle, tasting takes place on a patio if a power shutdown threatens and safety isn’t a concern. I wished I’d had time for a picnic on the estate’s verdant grounds, but I was satisfied with a few splashes, a walk through the gardens and a little time to shop for holiday gifts in the tasting room.
A local radio station erroneously reported that Chateau St. Jean was seriously damaged during the Northern California wildfires of 2017. And indeed, it was surrounded by flames that year, suffered minor damage and was closed for eight weeks.
Ledson Winery & Vineyards, in the heart of Sonoma County, was in the line of fire in 2017; flames came close but stopped short of the winery’s 16,000-square-foot French Normandy-style mansion. It’s an interesting place to tour, with sweeping staircases, several tasting bars and more than five miles of ornate wood inlays and mosaics. For wine lovers, there’s a large premium portfolio.
We took a break from tasting at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, east of Santa Rosa, one of the few wineries in the region that allow guests among the vines. A 1.5-mile self-guided tour (free) led us through rows of Chardonnay and Syrah grapes to an organic garden. Back at the visitors center, we paid $20 for a flight of red wines, including Merlots and old-vines Zinfandels. (We could have avoided the tasting fee if we purchased two bottles.)
On the way to Sonoma, we stopped at Kunde Family Winery, which has moved beyond PSPS tribulations: “Power doesn’t affect us anymore,” said Naomi Doherty, director of guest experience. “We have a generator. It’s our new thing.”
The winery, which dates to 1904, offers impressive experiences, including a mountaintop tasting ($60) on an oak-shaded peak overlooking 700 acres of estate vineyards. Or you can cool off inside the mountain with a cave tasting experience ($60).
We poked around in Sonoma, visiting the town’s leafy centerpiece, the plaza pedestrian square. It’s a fun stop if you’re visiting with children, need a break from tasting rooms or are touring with someone who enjoys the region’s culture and heritage. Edwards, more history buff than wine lover, enjoyed a chance to focus on something other than barrels and glasses.
The plaza, anchored by the northernmost Franciscan mission in California, is also the birthplace of the state bear flag, created by Americans rebelling against Mexican rule. Visitors can take historic tours ($3 for adults, $2 for kids 6-17 of the parish-turned-museum Mission San Francisco Solano and the Sonoma Barracks military post and cannon arsenal, a hit with kids.
I wandered away from the park, visiting some of my favorite downtown Sonoma haunts: Readers’ Books, where I always find something new to ponder; Bossa Nova and Saint James, two clothing shops I like; and Pangloss Cellars, an elegant tasting room across the street from the plaza.
The next day we returned to Napa, stopping for lunch at Oxbow Public Market, which combines restaurants, a coffee bar, a local chocolatier and a produce market under one roof. Then we headed north again on California 29.
I was reveling in the offseason perks: We could drive on 29 without being stuck in traffic, meaning we had time to explore several hip-and-cool Napa County cities, including Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga.
Although some of Napa’s great wineries are tucked away in the mountains, California 29 offers plenty of opportunities for tasting, a boon for travelers. Most wineries along the highway don’t require reservations, especially for simple tastings during the offseason.
Cakebread Cellars, one of my favorites, does require them. But tasting Cakebread wines is well worth the inconvenience.
The Rutherford winery is a perennial winner in Food & Spirits’ annual restaurant poll naming the most requested wines in America. Cakebread also has opened a striking new visitor center, a 10,000-square-foot renovation and 36,000-square-foot addition, with nine new private tasting rooms.
Shopping at the winery makes me happy. A bottle of Chardonnay I would pay $38.50 for here could set me back $110 in a restaurant. Or I could pay $25 for a tasting flight and try five of the winery’s current releases. I hate to speculate what that might cost in a restaurant.
Although the new visitor center is remarkable, “the timing wasn’t perfect,” said Katie Griesbeck, national sales and marketing director. It opened just a couple of days before PG&E turned off the power and the Kincade fire started.
“It reminds us to expect the unexpected,” she said.
Visiting in the off-season
When I visited Napa and Sonoma valleys in November with photographer Jim Edwards, temperatures were mild, the lines had disappeared and lodging prices were less than half the amount charged during the summer.
It’s one of the reasons I enjoy offseason visits to the valleys. During the summer and at harvest time, California 29 and most tasting rooms are gridlocked. Hotel room prices are in the stratosphere, and restaurant lines stretch down the block. It’s like visiting Disneyland in July.
Local officials say the lack of tourists this year can be traced partly to the October fire; many people, like me, didn’t realize Napa and Sonoma valleys weren’t affected. But the offseason is always a good time to visit.
“I always tell everyone to come in January or February,” said John Peterson, sales manager for Ledson Winery & Vineyards. “You’re going to get plenty of attention. We’ve had people stay a couple of hours because they’re learning so much from our consultants.”
THE BEST WAY TO NAPA AND SONOMA COUNTIES
From LAX: Four airports are within a two-hour drive of Napa and Sonoma counties, including the closest, Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, which offers service to and from LAX and Orange County. Or fly into San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento.
WHERE TO STAY
MacArthur Place, 29 E. MacArthur St., Sonoma; (800) 722-1866, macarthurplace.com. Recently renovated 7-acre property offers plush accommodations, landscaped gardens and ritzy seclusion near Sonoma Plaza. Among the amenities: indoor-outdoor showers, fireplaces and enclosed patios. There’s also a popular new chef-driven Mediterranean-style restaurant, Layla. Doubles from $252 per night, plus 10% resort fee.
Calistoga Motel Lodge & Spa, 1880 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; (707) 942-0991, calistogamotorlodgeandspa.com. This 50-room roadside motel, circa 1940s, has been reborn as an oh-so-cool ode to the cross-country road trip, complete with a modern spa that has three mineral pools fed by geothermal hot springs. Doubles from $229 per night.
Westin Verasa Napa, 1314 McKinstry St., Napa; (707) 257-1800, bit.ly/westinverasanapa. Large downtown Napa resort is on the Napa River and close to the Napa Wine Train and Oxbow Public Market. Features include 24-hour room service, fire pits and a large pool. Doubles from $175 per night, plus daily $25 resort fee.
WHERE TO EAT
The Girl & the Fig, 110 West Spain St., Sonoma; (707) 938-3634, Ext. 10, thegirlandthefig.com. Owner Sondra Bernstein loves figs, and there are plenty on this inventive French menu. Popular items include fig-and-arugula salad, duck confit and wild flounder meunière. Entrees from $15.
C Casa, Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., Napa; (707) 226-7700, myccasa.com. The line begins in the morning and lasts all day at this popular taqueria that adds twists to its menu with lamb, buffalo, prawns, crab, goat cheese and other unusual ingredients. Entrees from $12.75.
Napa General Store, 540 Main St., Napa; (707) 259-0762, napageneralstore.com. Dine on the river or inside this lively mercantile and cafe in downtown Napa. Breakfasts start at $10 for a waffle or French toast. Choose from pizza, salads or sandwiches at lunch, from $12.
TO LEARN MORE
Visit Napa Valley, 600 Main St. Napa; (707) 251-5895 or (855) 847-6272, visitnapavalley.com
Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau,453 1st St. E., Sonoma; (866) 996-1090, sonomavalley.com
Sonoma County Tourism, sonomacounty.com