Despite being born and raised in the New York countryside, I’m a Californian. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else, but the sense of home I feel comes not from my years in residence, but from the connection I feel in my soul. That’s why my heart ached watching rampant wildfires spread through both northern and southern California last year.
Although the devastation was severe, California is never kept down for long. Even in the most fire-ravaged regions of Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Ventura – and the impending mudslides that buried parts of Montecito not long after – word came quickly that things had returned to near normal. And what these destinations need most now is for visitors to return.
But are the communities (and their hotels, restaurants and attractions) ready? Curious, and in need of reassurance, I set out to see for myself.
Driving north on Route 29, the main artery that runs through Napa’s wine country, things look as gorgeous as ever. Spring is on its way when I arrive in late March, just five months after the Tubbs, Atlas and Nuns fires swept through the region.
As I head north to Calistoga, I can see that nature has been quick to tend the wounded hills. Vibrant green patches of newly-sprung grass and fields of yellow wildflowers are already bursting through the charred earth.
Calistoga Ranch, Auberge Resorts Collection — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea
I’m on my way to check into Calistoga Ranch, and although I’ve been assured that the fires didn’t damage the property, I’m concerned about the wooded canyon in which the 50 luxurious, free-standing lodges were built. Did the canyon burn? Is the smoke – or smell of it – lingering? The answers are no and no.
In fact, exploring this 157-acre property in the early morning hours, the mist is hanging low and the hills are bright and glistening. Geese glide across tiny Lake Lommel on the resort's upper reaches, and some guests are heading to the Ranch's chicken coop to gather fresh eggs (if delivered to the restaurant, the chef will prepare them to order).
In other words, business as usual.
A moody Lake Lommel — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea
Nearby, in the village of Calistoga, I pop into Picayune Cellars to taste the wine and talk with owner and winemaker Claire Ducrocq-Weinkauf about how the past five months have played out for her still-fledgling business.
"We need people to visit," Ducrocq-Weinkauf says. "Historically, October is our busiest month, so the fires resulted in a pretty drastic drop in business. Even though things were under control fairly quickly, tourists didn’t realize that the skies were clear and we were ready to welcome them back."
I buy a couple bottles of the Padlock red blend (my way of supporting the region, of course) and venture south to Yountville and Napa. Throughout the weekend, I observe crowd levels and chat with locals about how the restaurants and wineries have fared throughout the valley.
Redd Wood, a casual Italian-inspired eatery, is my first stop. I soak up the view of the tiny Yountville market across the street and scarf down a plate of gluten-free Cacio e Pepe paired with a smooth cab. I might endure a smoke-filled sky to eat that dish again.
Every table is occupied and the restaurant certainly does not appear to be suffering from lack of customers, even with rain falling for the past few days.
On Saturday, I meet up with Michelle Helms who runs a little operation called Laces & Limos and we venture out to some of the lesser-known wineries around Napa. She chauffeurs me into the backroads of the Coombsville region in a luxe tuk tuk where we visit Italics – a new estate winery – and talk with Managing Partner Taylor Martin about the fire’s impact.
"At its worst, the fire was less than a mile from here," Martin says, pointing to the sloping benchlands just beyond the vineyard. "But, as it turns out, vineyards make excellent fire breaks," and the fast-moving flames were contained in the hills.
Martin notes that, despite the fire most likely being a once-in-a-lifetime event, the media coverage implied that the town was nearly destroyed. "People are surprised when they see Napa intact," he says. "We had been experiencing an uptick in visitors (since being included in the Netflix feature Decanted), but after the fire everything went to zero."
Taylor Martin of Italics Winery — Photo courtesy of Lauren Keskinel
Helped along by the Napa Film Festival that was held less than a month after the fires, the message got out that Napa and most of its tourism-related businesses were in good shape. "Once people realized that the town was still standing and needed support, people started to return," Martin said.
As I walk past hundreds of stacked barrels on a tour of the 16,000-square-foot caves, it's easy to understand why people would want to visit when they venture out to the Coombsville region. The 2014 cabernet sauvignon I tried before rushing out will definitely lure me back.
Later, I swing by the well-established Chimney Rock Winery in the Stags Leap District. Again I hear how the Atlas fire burned to the vineyard’s edge, power was lost and nerves were frayed. During a tour, my guide points out a multi-million-dollar home perched over the estate, noting that it was one of the few on the crest that survived the fire while those that surrounded it burned to the ground.
But Chimney Rock’s majestic white façade and facilities show no signs of the devastation and their wine remains among the most noteworthy along the Silverado Trail. Although I’m tasting vintages from past years, there isn’t expected to be much impact from the fires when the 2017 wines are released (likely in 2020) given that 90 percent of the grapes had already been harvested when the flames spread.
Although unable to get to Sonoma, I know the area was harder hit than Napa. However, according to Sonoma County Tourism, only about 10 percent of the county suffered fire damage, much of that in the residential areas of Santa Rosa or in the surrounding mountains. Only one Sonoma winery and two hotels (The Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and Fountain Grove Inn) were lost.
And Napa and Sonoma, which are generally considered competing neighbors, have come together. "There has always been a bit of competition between Napa and Sonoma, but this event has served to dissolve that and I think, collectively, the communities have really come together," Italics' Martin said.
"Behind all the beautiful tasting rooms, remember that this is a farming community. The people here are very cognizant of the importance of working together. That's part of what stitches the rural society together."
Only a few months after the wine country fires, the Thomas Fire broke out in southern California. Started in the hills above Santa Paula (about an hour north of Los Angeles), flames spread quickly reaching Ojai, Ventura and the hills around Santa Barbara – most infamously the posh enclave of Montecito. Burning nearly 440 square miles over more than a month, it became the worst wildfire in California history.
Charred remains of the Thomas Fire — Photo courtesy of Lauren Keskinel
The town of Ojai – about an hour and a half outside Los Angeles – relies heavily on the tourism industry, like so many others. Although the town did not lose a lot of structures, it’s hard to ignore the miles of blackened trees along the roadside and ridgelines as I drive up Route 33 on my way to the Ojai Valley Inn.
Along the town’s main drag, sentiments of gratitude for first responders are displayed in shop windows and along walkways. #OjaiLove pops up at every turn, reminding visitors of the post-fire campaign that raised over $20,000 to support those impacted by the fire. (Donations are still being accepted to the campaign through a GoFundMe page).
Colonnade in the village of Ojai — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea
Just over a month after the fire, I roll my suitcase along the winding footpaths to my room at the Inn, a high-end resort that has been a popular southern California retreat for nearly 100 years. When the fire blew through the once-verdant hills around the property, the resort shuttered and visitors fled to safety.
Once the smoke cleared, the property was covered in layers of dirt and ash, requiring it to close for over a month so the Inn could be returned to a standard that guests have come to expect. Impressively, my massage therapist at the resort’s Spa Ojai tells me that the owners, the Crown family of Chicago, paid all of their employees while the resort was being cleaned, inch by inch, inside and out. There is not one speck of ash to be found and the service not only meets, but exceeds, expectations.
Ojai Valley Inn — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea
Like northern California, tourism dropped drastically in the weeks after the fire, but is gradually returning to normal. Throughout the state, both north and south, locals and business owners alike reiterated the need for people to come and visit.
"The most beautiful thing about this disaster," says Picayune’s Ducrocq-Weinkauf, "is how people have realized that we’re all connected and need to help each other. We’re so thankful for everyone who is coming back."
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