It is unfortunate public knowledge that California's Napa and Sonoma valleys burst into flames in October 2017, striking fear into the hearts of oenophiles the world over. Those two world-famous wine valleys are the gems of American viticulture, the place where some of the country's top wines are born and nurtured to greatness. The good news is, despite much damage in certain areas, Napa and Sonoma are alive and well and waiting for wine (and food) lovers to return.
One: The scary fires are gone
When celebrity chef and local resident Tyler Florence welcomed 500-plus people to the Grateful Table charity event on November 21, 2017, it was a sign that both Napa and Sonoma are getting back to normal. "We all just went through a really horrific experience together, but we're really grateful for what we have," he said. "We are fortunate enough to live in a really beautiful part of the country and nothing is going to stop us, nothing is going to hold us back. This community is going to pull together stronger than ever and we want everyone to know we are ready to welcome visitors back, right now."
The massive single table filled with world-class food and wine stretched through a vineyard that straddles the two valleys, with the right side of the table sitting in Sonoma and the left side of the table sitting in Napa – a perfect symbol of how the two great wine valleys are symbiotic. With the fires completely out, the sunny, clear skies reminded everyone – numerous chefs, winemakers, growers, first responders and lovers of the region – that there's nothing to fear here at all.
Two: The wineries are all open (except Signorello and a few others)
Wineries across both Napa and Sonoma are open and pouring their best vintages – except Signorello Estate, which burned to the ground on the Silverado Trail in Napa during the October fires, and a few others that suffered damage. But the classics are still at the top of their games, with favorites like the award-winning Shafer Vineyards (whose Relentless 2008 bottling took home the world's number one wine prize from Wine Spectator in 2012) unscathed and taking reservations for during-the-week tastings. All of Shafer's fellow top-notch Stags Leap District wineries are welcoming visitors, too, along the Silverado Trail (think Robert Sinskey, Pine Ridge, Chimney Rock, Clos du Val, etc.); and the numerous wineries along Route 29 throughout the Napa Valley are also back to normal. We love the new Yountville Wine Walk, where visitors can meander through that lovely town and visit 17 tasting rooms and two wineries (be sure to try the Silver Trident wines along the way, they are exemplary); pick up a Wine Walk map/stamp card at the visitor's center and you'll even be eligible for some fun prizes once you get your card stamped along the walk.
In Sonoma, a number of wineries suffered damage (Gundlach Bundschu, for example) and Paradise Ridge burned completely, but most are back up and running, including Buena Vista Winery, one of the oldest in all of America, founded in 1857. The fires came quite close to the original two stone winery buildings, but all escaped unscathed. Splurge on a taste of their private reserve wines and don't miss their champagne/sparkling wine tasting room, that's worth a visit just for its quirky, fun interior design. Other favorites in Sonoma are Chateau St. Jean, with its beautiful landscaping and excellent wines; Gary Farrell Winery, which pairs world-class Pinot Noir with a tasting room view without compare; and the venerable Jordan Winery, with its award-winning Cabernets and Chardonnays and elegant hilltop tasting room.
Three: The restaurants are world class
During the fires, restaurateurs and chefs like Tyler Florence did everything they could to help. "We just started cooking like crazy," he recalls. "We fed 150 firefighters in Marin County." Over in Napa, the chefs at the Meritage Resort and Spa's Siena and Crush Lounge offered up three meals a day for free, to anyone who was hungry. All across the valleys, world-class eateries did whatever they could to help.
Now that everything is back to normal, there's plenty of incredible food to sample, including a chance to try The French Laundry, Chef Thomas Keller's famed 3-star Michelin rated Yountville restaurant. Usually completely booked for months ahead, at the moment groups of four or more can snag seats for the $325 per person, nine-course Chef's Tasting. At nearby Bottega, Chef Michael Chiarello's Italian trattoria pleases the palate with every course – try the pulpo alle griglia, some of the best octopus you've ever eaten. We love Napa's venerable Bistro Don Giovanni, too, especially their wood-open pizzas and homemade pastas, and newcomer Miminashi, Chef Curtis de Fede's izakaya-style Japanese eatery. He's just launched a mind-bogglingly delicious Sunday brunch that changes every week.
Sonoma has its share of great dining choices as well – Glen Ellen Star boasts an open kitchen, wood-fire oven and flavorful locally-sourced dishes from Chef Ari Weiswasser, who honed his talents at The French Laundry. Other valley favorites to sample include SHED in Healdsburg, The Girl and the Fig in the town of Sonoma and, for movie lovers, Rustic. That's Francis Ford Coppola's casual Italian eatery at his eponymous winery in Geyserville, worth the visit for the film memorabilia alone.
Four: The hotels are dreamy
With so many incredibly dreamy hotels and resorts dotted across Sonoma and Napa, it's not easy to decide where to snuggle in. We love Meadowood, the luxury resort near St. Helena in Napa, for its lovely cottages tucked into the trees, their elegant new spa and the Restaurant at Meadowood, the three-star Michelin eatery helmed by Chef Christopher Kostow. Calistoga Ranch is a bit further north and it, too, is a beautiful place in a private canyon with personal villas and bespoke amenities. Over in Yountville, the newly transformed Vintage House is modern yet comfortable, and in a perfect location for roaming up and down the Napa Valley.
In the Sonoma Valley, choose Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza, a 12-room boutique hotel right on the famed Healdsburg meeting place that's filled with cute shops and restaurants or get a bit more away from it all at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa and be sure to indulge in a spa treatment that includes taking the healing waters in the natural mineral springs there.
No matter where you choose to stay, there's an amenity that most hotels in California's famed wine valleys offer in every guest room – a bottle of delicious local wine awaits.
Five: The festivals are totally cool
Both Napa and Sonoma have lots of fun festivals throughout the year, especially since the weather is usually sunny and nice, even in the winter months (when you might need an umbrella and a warm jacket). Sonoma's top fests include the Hot Air Balloon Classic in June; Sonoma Wine Country Weekend in September that showcases 150 wineries and includes Taste of Sonoma; and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair in October.
Over in Napa, music is included into the wine and food mix at the BottleRock Napa Valley Festival every May; at Festival Napa Valley fine arts event in July; Blues, Brews & BBQ in August; and Live in the Vineyard in November, the weekend-long music festival that requires attendees to win tickets via participating radio stations. Plenty of food and wine happenings take place all year there as well, like the Napa Truffle Festival in January; Auction Napa Valley (all wines) in June; and the Harvest Table in September.
There's nothing quite like sipping a fine California Cabernet Sauvignon while overlooking the vineyards in Napa or Sonoma; that experience might have been put on hold for a few weeks in October 2017, but we guarantee that both valleys have roared back to life, proving the hashtags #NapaStrong and #SonomaStrong 100 percent correct.