The Coast News Group
Bill and Betsy Nachbaur are the owners of Acorn Winery, located in once-again fire-ravaged Sonoma County. Courtesy photo
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Beautiful wine country, plagued by fires, will bounce back

Sonoma County has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last several years and now, sadly, it is again.

In October 2017, the Tubbs fire, which began in Calistoga and roared through Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, destroyed 5,200 homes and structures, burned about 39,000 acres, cost $1.3 billion and took 22 lives.

Santa Rosa took the biggest hit, with many neighborhoods going up in smoke.

Now, as I write, the Kincade fire is ravaging the same area.

So far, nearly 80,000 acres have burned, and who knows how many more this conflagration will take. Meteorologists forecast more high winds and residents are weary and discouraged.

In early October, my husband and I visited Northern Sonoma County’s Wine Road, which includes the American Viticultural Areas (AVA) of Russia River Valley; Alexander Valley; Dry Creek Valley; Green Valley; Chalk Hill; and my favorite name, Rockpile. From what we could see, both nature and people appeared to have done an amazing rebound from 2017. Our friends showed us some of the burned areas, which were not immediately obvious, and we also saw neighborhoods in various stages of rebuilding.

The day after we left wine country, the lights went out.

Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting off power to its customers in Sonoma County, surrounding areas and in San Francisco’s East Bay, ostensibly because it’s the best way to prevent fire in hot, dry, windy conditions.,

Despite these measures, it’s déjà vu all over again.

The Kincade fire sprang to life Oct. 23, and some Sonoma County residents are watching their homes burn for the second time in two years. Many are doing an evacuation-rewind. Healdsburg, with its storybook Victorians and redwood-shaded town square, is empty, as is Windsor and many wineries, restaurants, lodgings and shops — all dependent upon tourism. 

While there, we met many Wine Road people (an organization of about half of Sonoma County’s 400-plus wineries) who have an unmatched dedication to and passion for sustainable agriculture, viticulture and winemaking. They do all the hard work and take the chances and we have only to show up and enjoy it.

It’s difficult to write about Sonoma County when it’s burning, but eventually it won’t be. That’s when the people and businesses of the Wine Road will need visitors. So, when that time arrives, head north and reach out to some of these good people we met along the way:

• His fans call him Farmer T and he has 45,000 followers on Instagram. That’s because Tucker Taylor loves sharing his enthusiasm for agriculture and the unique plants and trees for which he “scours the globe.” As Director of Culinary Gardens at Kendall Jackson Winery (https://www.kj.com) in Fulton, Taylor manages four acres of garden where he cultivates vegetables, fruit trees, flowers, herbs  and unfamiliar treasures like oyster leaf from Scotland’s moors; kinome, a small Japanese tree; and oca, a Peruvian sorrel. Birds, bats, chickens and bees all figure in the production, too. Taylor also hosts periodic farm-to-table events in his bucolic garden, a setting to rival any Sunset Magazine layout.

• Betsy Nachbaur can tell the story of Healdsburg’s Acorn Winery (https://acornwinery.com/) in the early morning with more enthusiasm than most of us can muster by noon. She and husband Bill, a former lawyer, began growing grapes for others, then decided to make their own wine. Their unique blends begin right in the field where different varietals are grown and harvested together. It’s an impressive idea.

• Millennials Alex and Katie Bowman may be the youngest Wine Road winemakers, but family roots in the county are generations deep. Bowman Cellars (https://bowmancellars.com) opened in February 2018 in a historic building in tiny Graton. The shiny Airstream trailer on the front patio converts to a food truck for events, and guests gather on the wide front porch for tastings, music, and cannabis events. They want to create a “laid-back” but “edgy” vibe, Katie says. And, get this: Return your wine bottles for refills and save $4.

• Winemaker David Munksgard is the consummate storyteller and a delight to follow on a tour through the Iron Horse Ranch and Vineyard (www.ironhorsevineyards.com) in Sebastopol. His rolling, humorous and professorial narration will make you feel a whole lot smarter. Make a reservation for his truck tour. The winery is a challenge to find, but persistence will be rewarded with a beautiful view from their hilltop domain.

• According to Patrick Lytle, general manager at Jigar Wines (https://www.jigarwines.com/) in Forestville, “the source is everything.” Jigar winemakers want you to taste the specific vineyard in each bottle. The family-owned boutique winery sources grapes from five growers in the Russian River and Dry Creek valleys and vineyards in the Mendocino area. Tasting room conversation is comfortable, casual and informative.

• It’s clear that Andrew Lynch, tasting room supervisor, loves to leave his post and walk the acres of the working farm at Lynmar Estate (https://lynmarestate.com) in Sebastopol. A large, colorful flower garden hugs the patio where visitors can enjoy wine and the flavor-of-the-month popcorn, like roasted fig leaf and Gravenstein apple, both fruits grown on the property – and experience enhanced by the beautiful setting.

Check out the Wine Road at (www.wineroad.com). Free map and concierge service available, too.