When Karen Schafer watched on TV as wildfires carved a destructive path across Sonoma and Napa counties, the Sparks, Nevada, resident thought she’d be canceling her upcoming Wine Country vacation.
But assured by emails from her favorite wineries that most everything remained intact, the retired sonographer and her husband Chris, a retired doctor, kept their plans.
As they drove north up Highway 101, they saw charred hillsides centered around Santa Rosa give way to untouched vineyards turning vibrant fall colors and clear blue skies that have beckoned them before.
By the time they reached picturesque Healdsburg, where there is no sign of the firestorm that raged three weeks before, they realized they’d made the right call.
“It is really unaffected up here,” Shafer said as she tasted red wine paired with lamb sliders Sunday with her husband and another couple at C Donatiello Winery on Healdsburg Plaza.
The wine tourism industry is hoping more people will take a chance on Sonoma County in the aftermath of wildfires that killed 23 people and caused $3 billion in damage.
For the most part, vintners and restaurateurs have opened their doors, but fewer people are walking in.
Tickets sales for the weekend Wine & Food Affair pairing event focused on the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys were down more than 20 percent. And Healdsburg merchants reported a noticeable decline in foot traffic during what is usually the last busy time before the holidays.
Scott Jordan, who owns Cellars of Sonoma wine collective a block off the plaza, said he reopened a week after the blazes began Oct. 8, but customers have been slow to return. The 10-15 tourists buses that normally line the street outside Hotel Healdsburg are missing.
The fear is potential tourists believe the town has been wiped off the map and are traveling to other wine destinations such as the Central Coast.
“If the tourists don’t come back, we’re toast,” said Jordan, as collective employees served up beef stew to a handful of tasting room patrons.
Still, some 3,500 people bought tickets to the two-day event put on by the Wine Road-Northern Sonoma County, an association of 200 wineries and 54 hotels in the three valleys.
Many hit tasting rooms around the plaza Sunday, walking the leafy sidewalks with wine glasses dangling from lanyards and buying up more bottles than normal.
Donnis Topel, the owner Topel Winery and Tasting Room on Matheson Street, said customers were mindful of the fire-related slowdown and wanted to help.
“People were saying, ‘Look, we brought our own bags to carry wine home in,’” Topel said.
Longtime Wine Road fans Joel Kaufman and Jessica Grossman of Pleasant Hill took home a few bottles. It was their first trip to the Wine Country since the fires.
“You could see the burn spots on the hills and the houses close to the freeway,” said Grossman, who works in home development. “But we weren’t going to let it keep us away.”
Karen Schafer agreed. She and her husband were returning for the third year. This time, they brought friends from Prescott, Arizona. The two couples took advantage of the lighter crowds to eat and drink and buy more than 30 bottles of wine. There was no waiting at the tasting bar.