California Wine Country Travel Update: Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Trip After the Fires

Here's why now is actually an excellent time for wine-tasting travel in California.

California's historic wildfires took a devastating toll last year. Apart from the horror of the lives and structures lost, there was the impact on livelihoods within California’s most famous wine-producing regions. So, what is California wine country like after the fires?

First, Northern California’s beloved Napa and Sonoma counties seemed ruined, and then Montecito and Ojai took a staggering hit. Luckily for Paso Robles, also a big producer, the area had no natural disasters to contend with. (There visitors can now ride horses at Halter Ranch Winery, take an Art & Wine Tour at Allegretto Vineyard Resort, and sip along the Paso Robles Distillery Trail.) 

But like in the Caribbean after last fall’s hurricanes, the aftermath of these terrible natural disasters is incredibly confusing to those who are not in it or witnessing the destruction firsthand. In the Caribbean, there were many entire islands that suffered zero damage, not even a palm tree lost — and likewise, in a great deal of the wine country, there is little evidence of the fires. In fact, of around 900 wineries in both Napa and Sonoma, only 20 suffered significant damage. So now is not the time to take a wine trip off your 2018 travel itinerary — rather, it’s actually more of a reason to go now and support the many unaffected businesses that rely on tourism to survive.

What Happened?

As was the problem down south, wind was the major factor in Northern California's October fires, which caused some homes to be completely burnt to a crisp while places across the street were left untouched (an estimated 5,700 structures were destroyed).

But as tragic as it was for locals, hotels, restaurants, and the majority of wineries in both Napa and Sonoma are open for business — Signorello Estate and Paradise Ridge Winery were the two that were completely destroyed. Some vineyard blocks burned and will have to be replanted, but 2017 vintages are expected to be just fine. For the most part grapes had been harvested already, and this year’s crop shouldn’t be affected since the vines were bare. 

Even where the flames did sweep across hillsides and come dangerously close to licking the side of buildings, like at the delightful luxury boutiquey Poetry Inn in the Staggs Leap District (theirs was an incredibly last-minute save thanks to the LA Fire Department and shifting winds), several months later there’s almost no trace. In January the whole valley was actually incredibly green and lush, with bright yellow mustard starting to bloom and grass covering the charred hills — a result of the mineral-rich soil left behind after the fire.

Las Alcobas Napa Valley

Still-new and unaffected Las Alcobas Napa Valley is a retreat just outside the main drag of St. Helena, set beside Beringer’s estate vineyards, which make for a stunning setting, especially with the rooms’ vineyard-facing terraces and balconies boasting fire pits or soaking tubs. Its Acacia House restaurant is drawing fans of its chef Chris Cosentino’s beloved offal-heavy Cockscomb restaurant in San Francisco, for seasonal, sustainable dishes ranging from a fantastic pork schnitzel to caviar-topped chips and dip. Down the road is another compelling reason for a wine-country getaway: Los Angeles restaurateur Sang Yoon’s Two Birds/One Stone (with chef Douglas Keane, a Japanese yakitori–inspired restaurant—sharing a building with a winery, naturally — serving to-die-for kimchee-brined fried chicken with Korean buffalo sauce.

Calistoga

Calistoga up the road was significantly affected by the fire along with other regions like Atlas Peak and Mt. Vreeder, but on the latter there were properties like the reservation-only Outpost Wines — known especially for its juicy Zinfandels — that survived. The fire didn’t affect the recent opening of The Ink House on the way to Rutherford, an 1800s house that once slept Elvis Presley and was reimagined as a hyper-luxurious B&B with butler-style service (not to mention plentiful Castellucci wine by the same family) and Bentley house car for dropoffs and pickups at new hot spots like The Charter Oak (for a mouthwatering meal of fire-cooked meats and inventive veggies) or for exclusive tastings at Edge Hill Estate, one of the oldest fine wine estates in the area. And nearby, Round Pond Estate makes for a dreamy day of wine tasting, olive oil tasting, garden tours and, to cap it all off, the completely seasonal (and mostly locally grown), family-style Il Pranzo lunch.  

Downtown Napa

Downtown Napa is undergoing a resurgence of late, which was actually in some ways prompted by a different natural disaster: the 2014 6.0 earthquake. In the years since, it's been rebuilding and rethinking, and one of the most exciting businesses to come of it is Archer Napa Valley, a new five-star design-forward hotel of 183 beautiful rooms outfitted with wine fridges that will soon be surrounded by more fine dining, tasting rooms and live-music venues as part of the fresh First Street Napa development. As of now the new Charlie Palmer Steak is the place to be both for savory meals and after hours, but come spring the rooftop opening — with Napa’s first rooftop pool — is sure to be a game-changer.   

Sonoma

In Sonoma, the longtime favorite Farmhouse Inn (Natalie Portman, Claire Danes and Kate Bosworth have all stayed) hosted two weddings just after the danger passed their location, but a couple staff lost their homes, which was the case at many places such as famed eatery Girl & the Fig, too. The fires did a lot of damage to the parks that make Sonoma such a destination for nature lovers, too. Fun fact: Only six percent of Sonoma County land is planted with grape vineyards, despite having more than 425 wineries. Sugarloaf Ridge State Park reopened February 1 with infrastructure repaired by volunteers, and may actually have an even more spectacular spring wildflower bloom this season (there’s a star party on February 10 at the Robert Ferguson Observatory), while a portion of Hood Mountain Regional Park (the Los Alamos Road entrance) with its beautiful trails just reopened too.

From a hotel standpoint, Bodega Bay Lodge recently unveiled new suites and a refreshed restaurant, Drakes Sonoma Coast Kitchen, with a renovated hotel bar opening this year. Near downtown Santa Rosa is the up-and-coming arts neighborhood where The Astro Motel just opened, a stylish remodel of a 1963 motor lodge that’s colorful, urbane and has special amenities for cyclists. The newest addition to buzzing downtown Healdsburg, meanwhile, is Harmon Guest House, with a rooftop terrace bar, which will be the latest addition to the acclaimed Hotel Healdsburg and h2 family when it debuts.

The devastation is perhaps a bit more obvious when driving around Sonoma, like through the town of Glen Ellen, where hundreds of structures burned. The burn stopped less than 50 feet away from Buena Vista Winery’s stone tasting room, and the sixth-generation Gundlach Bundschu Winery just barely survived, with its tasting room and olive tree–shaded picnic tables intact. 

The Santa Barbara Area

Much further south of Santa Barbara in Ojai and Ventura, the fires raged, fueled by the Santa Ana winds. Then, the mudslides severely damaged not just homes but hotels in the latter. The Santa Ynez Valley and city of Santa Barbara were not affected, though when driving on the mountainous route of Highway 154 there’s evidence of a previous fire. In Santa Ynez, a charming town that marks the start of the Central Coast’s wine region, the Santa Ynez Inn boasts a fresh renovation to rooms, a new whisky tasting program, and charming indoor and outdoor spaces with fire pits and fireplaces. It’s an elegant yet cozy place to base yourself for tasting the valley’s favorite vinos such as at Sunstone and Alma Rosa, and trying out new restaurants like the delicious Mad & Vin and exceptional SY Kitchen, which is just blocks away.

Goleta and Summerland were also free of damage, so places like Hotel Californian and Pinot Noir–producing Summerland Winery are open for business, too. Which is to say, now's an excellent time to indulge in California wines at the source.

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