In spite of the fact that Northern California recently suffered the worst fires in the state's history, today's views of Napa and Sonoma seem miraculous. Atop the Golden State's most golden hills, you can glimpse fresh greenery snuggling into the valleys below. Silvery mists wrap protectively around surviving vines, now red with autumn leaves. But this glorious sight is not nature's miracle alone – volunteers are working shoulder to shoulder here every day, reviving Wine Country's living dreamscape.
You're right on time to take part in this California comeback story. Even before the smoke cleared, Napa and Sonoma were back to doing what they do best: bringing homegrown food, heartfelt toasts, creature comforts and good vibes to all. In one day, a fleet of Bay Area food trucks served 3500 free meals, 900 neighbors opened their homes to fire evacuees, and 80 people got tattooed to raise emergency relief funds. So how can you help, besides a tattoo? Just relax. Every time you enjoy Wine Country – at dinner, by the glass, or on a weekend getaway - you help Northern California rebuild, and keep those good vibes coming.
The hills of Napa Valley are still golden after the destructive fires in early fall © Jerry Alexander / Getty Images
Inspired feasts and easy graces are exactly what the world has come to expect from Wine Country – but in fire's aftermath, every kind gesture and local ingredient takes on added meaning.
You'd never guess how many Sonoma and Napa restaurant staff are pulling double shifts, volunteering to prepare nourishing meals for displaced families and seasonal farm workers. Visitors joined in for meal-prep shifts at Sonoma Family Meal and folks can still help by dropping off non-perishable foods at Redwood Empire Food Bank. Afterwards, many volunteers head to their regular restaurant gigs and work into the wee hours, when sleepy line cooks and bakers cross paths under Wine Country's freshly Michelin-starred autumn skies. Everyone is pulling together to dish up the meal of a lifetime – for dinner guests, and for each other.
Dustin Valette, owner and proprietor of Valette Restaurant in Healdsburg prepared hundreds of meals every day for firefighters and first responders working the Tubbs and Pocket fires in Sonoma County © George Rose / Getty Images
While the US Food and Drug Administration recently declared that love is not a recognizable food ingredient, the Bay Area is determined to prove otherwise. Top chefs from 129 restaurants in San Francisco and around the Bay Area have declared the week before Thanksgiving "ChefsGiving," offering North Bay-inspired menus to support fire recovery efforts through Restaurants Care and Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund.
But you'll be doing your tastebuds and fire-relief efforts an even bigger favor when you follow your cravings out of the city - whether they lead you to downtown Napa's Charlie Palmer Steak to support Napa Valley Community Fire Relief Fund, lavish ChefsGiving spa menus at Calistoga's elegant SolBar, or Zazu Kitchen & Farm's Sonoma-raised heritage black pig ham and cheese sandwich, with proceeds benefiting Santa Rosa nonprofits year-round. If you're in the Bay Area for Thanksgiving, leave the pumpkin-pie baking to Black Bear Diner, which is donating 100% of dessert proceeds to fire recovery efforts. But whenever you visit Napa and Sonoma, come hungry – Napa and Sonoma cooks are packing extra helpings of love into every dish, every day, and redefining California soul food.
Don't let NorCal's laid-back surfer-winemakers fool you: making wine in these unpredictable microclimates has always required nerves of steel. But 2017 is shaping up to be the trickiest, most extraordinary vintage to come along in our lifetime. Freaky California weather yielded unusually flavorful grapes this year, and North Bay vineyards harvested 90% of them just days or even hours before the fires. To make the most of this hard-won harvest, Napa and Sonoma winemakers are now rising to the creative challenge, creating nuanced new Sonoma Bordeaux-style blends and blockbuster Napa Cabernets bold enough to squash even the faintest rumor of smoke taint.
While it may not be an ingredient approved by the FDA, love permeates the air in Napa and Sonoma Counties and visitors are encouraged to come and be a part of it © George Rose / Getty Images
To get a sneak preview of NorCal's exceptional 2017 vintages, head straight to the source at Napa and Sonoma wineries, and sample wines in progress at vineyard barrel tastings. The stirring sight of these rolling, resilient vineyards may inspire you to raise a toast to the 8000 first responders who rescued them – especially when your tasting fees help support local fire relief efforts, as at Schug Carneros Estate and Lambert Bridge. If you haven't joined a NorCal wine club, now is a doubly smart time: your commitment to buy a bottle a month this year ensures that you get historic 2017 vintages before they're snapped up by collectors, and provides Napa and Sonoma farmers with essential support as they replant and rebuild.
Even if you can't make it to Sonoma and Napa just yet, you can always join them in spirit(s). For the holidays, Napa and Sonoma winemakers are creating special, one-off wines to raise funds for relief efforts, including the enchanting Iron Horse Gratitude bubbly rosé (supporting Sonoma's Redwood Empire Food Bank), the barnstorming Peterson Winery Dry Creek Zinfandel (benefitting California State Firefighters' Association) and the all-star JCB Honoris Napa & Sonoma Cabernet (benefitting local firefighters, Napa Community Fund and Sonoma Resilience Fund). If you'll be in San Francisco this December, you can toast fire recovery efforts at PinotFest with a juicy, judicious sampling of Sonoma Pinots and celebrate northwest Napa wines at Appellation St Helena's holiday benefit for Napa Valley Community Foundation.
Five-star feasts and rare vintages may be hard to top, but Wine Country is pulling out all the stops this fall with special events to fund ongoing recovery efforts. This year's Napa Valley Film Festival was a show of strength less than one month after the fires, with volunteers, star chefs, and comedian Will Ferrell entertaining crowds between movies and wine tastings. Benefit concerts are also springing up around the Bay this fall – at Band Together Bay Area, Dave Mathews and Bay Area legends Metallica and Rancid rocked San Francisco Giants stadium to raise a whopping $17 million. Sonoma is banding together For the Love of Sonoma at Sonoma State University, where Francis Ford Coppola and family are joining Bay Area favorites Counting Crows to raise funds for North Bay Fire Relief. Meanwhile in Napa, Bay Area rockers Michael Franti & Spearhead and Train are headlining at For the Love of Napa, with 100% of proceeds benefiting Napa Valley Community Foundation.
Relax at Indian Springs, with its four thermal geysers that produce a supply of rich mineral water © John S Lander / Getty Images
But after the applause fades, stick around – in quiet moments, Wine Country comes into its own. Retreat from the crowds to a yurt in the redwoods at Bothe-Napa State Park, or wander into the wilderness of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, which inspired the novelist's classic Treasure Island a century ago. Firefighters fought hard to save this nature preserve and Jack London State Park, where the all-time-bestselling adventure author dictated novels through a gramophone – and built a pioneering organic ranch way back in 1913, after a fire devastated his dream home in these woods.
Wine Country has always been resilient, but the outpouring of generosity you'll find in the fire's immediate aftermath is remarkable. Even while they're recovering from devastating loss, Napa and Sonoma spa staff are graciously providing comfort to all. Local volcanic hot springs have long been considered healing sites by local native Wappo Californians, and you may be inclined to agree after a restorative soak in Calistoga's naturally warm, velvety volcanic mud at historic Indian Springs. If you'd rather just be doused in Napa Cabernet – and who here would blame you? – that can be arranged with Meritage Resort & Spa "Uncork" treatment: a grape-seed scrub, followed by an antioxidant wine-mud wrap. Both these Napa spas aim to renew you, and the community too – room stays benefit Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund. In downtown Sonoma, Cottage Inn and Spa aims to soothe with complimentary tastings at 30 wineries, plus gift certificates for "Rejuvenation" massages that help fund local relief efforts. Hotel Healdsburg restores body and soul with feel-good "Farm-to-Spa" treatments like Meyer Lemon Sage Massages and Sauvignon Blanc Wine and Honey Wraps, with proceeds benefiting Sonoma recovery efforts.
Sit back, relax and enjoy your glass of wine knowing that just by being there, you are helping Napa and Sonoma Counties to recover from their devastating losses © Rana Faure / Getty Images
When times get tough, we all need a place to retreat – and with incredible grace, Wine Country is rising to the occasion. Napa and Sonoma gently nudge us to our senses with simple pleasures: a hearty meal, a raised glass, a walk in the woods, a wallow in mud. These pursuits seem timeless, but wildfires have left us acutely aware that none can be taken for granted – and every one of Wine Country's wonders is a truly inspired group effort. As we say in Wine Country: this calls for a toast.
San Francisco-based food, wine and travel writer Alison Bing dedicates this article and its fees to Redwood Empire Food Bank and Napa Valley Community Foundation Disaster Relief Fund, along with an extra pinch of that one FDA-unapproved ingredient.