California's wine country is bountiful and beautiful

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Hills charred by the Nuns Fire stand in stark contrast behind Sonoma County's Ledson Winery, which is open.
Hills charred by the Nuns Fire stand in stark contrast behind Sonoma County's Ledson Winery, which is open. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- When I visited Napa and Sonoma one week after wildfires gripped the region last month, locals advised me against going to Santa Rosa. There were still active fires in the area and it was too dangerous, they said.

Exactly one month after the fires broke out, it was a different story altogether. I drove toward Santa Rosa with no issues aside from the regular wine country congestion, though I was told that traffic patterns had been thrown off a bit since people who lost their homes had been forced to come and go from different directions than they had in the past.

This city has traditionally lacked the small-town charm of some of its quaint neighbors, like hyper-chic Healdsburg to the north and the laid-back Russian River resort area to the west. For beer lovers, however, a trip to Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewing Co. is often a must. A long line out the door for tables inside is a standard sight.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon earlier this month, there was no line (hint hint, beer fans), but there were still plenty of patrons inside enjoying cold brews. The cashier at the to-go beer counter said things have been quiet the past few weeks but were starting to pick up. Elsewhere, it appeared the city was undergoing a bit of a renaissance. New restaurants, bars and coffee shops had sprung up left and right since my previous visit to Santa Rosa earlier this year.

One thing was clear: Despite the heartbreaking images and videos of the devastation in the northern Santa Rosa neighborhoods of Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, downtown Santa Rosa was intact.

It wasn't until I left Santa Rosa and drove north along Highway 101 toward Healdsburg that I got my first glimpse of the damage, which at times came right up to the highway, making it difficult to focus on the road. I imagine there will be many cars that swerve in this area as the scenes of blackened and mangled buildings take drivers by surprise, as they did me.

Healdsburg felt completely removed from the apocalyptic images. There had been no damage in this quintessential wine country town, and the bars, restaurants, hotels and shops were all open and welcoming what appeared to be a normal number of visitors for this time of year.

The following day, a short drive along Highway 12, which winds between some of Sonoma County's well-known wineries, such as Ledson and St. Francis, again pulled the curtain back on the fires' impact. Hills charred by the Nuns Fire were on full display behind the otherwise picturesque estates that were open and pouring. In fact, I didn't see any that were closed.

On this trip, a feeling of relief replaced the smoke that once filled the air -- relief that the fires were contained, relief that they didn't do more damage than they did and relief that the process of moving forward could finally get underway.

For those who want to visit wine country, there is no reason not to do it now. The area is as bountiful and beautiful as ever. Its fire-caused blemishes will crop up here and there and will be impossible to miss in some places. Some visitors might easily pass them by, while for others it will be hard not to gawk and imagine what those who lived through the fires experienced as the flames neared their homes and businesses.

The fires have in many ways become a part of the wine country experience and legend now. The good news is that the excellent wine, food, accommodations and views never stopped being a part of it.

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