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.