Rebuilding Sonoma County: Neither fires nor floods can keep wine country visitors away
It would be hard to blame Denver resident Anne Marie Brown if she and her husband never wanted to visit Sonoma County again.
The last time they came here, in late February, the Russian River jumped its banks and they spent most of their vacation in west county trying to circumnavigate flooded roads. The visit before that, in October 2017, they arrived the night the fires struck and tried to make the best of an unfortunate and tragic situation.
“We definitely don’t have the best luck,” Brown jokes. “The last two visits have been pretty eventful.”
Still, Brown keeps coming back - her next visit later this year will be her sixth. She loves the vineyards, the hillsides, the coast and the laid-back way of life. She loves the wine, the food and the environment that cultivates creativity. Most of all, she said, she loves the people - the individuals who make each of the local businesses unique.
“This is such a special spot for us,” she said. “We’d be coming here no matter what, but especially after everything the region has been through, we feel it’s important to support the economy and tourism industry by coming back.”
Brown is not alone. In the wake of two significant disasters over the past 19 months, some travelers have decided to come back to Sonoma County in a show of support as the post-fire recovery continues. Many others, though, still are opting to stay away, as shown by the county’s declining monthly hotel occupany rates eight of the past nine months, according to the travel research firm STR.
But Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, said travelers are resilient - especially when they are rescheduling visits to destinations they know and love.
“The neat thing about travel is that there are a lot of substitutions in the products. If you miss (a particular destination) on one go-around, you might get them the year after that,” he said. “This happens all the time on the (Mississippi) Gulf Coast when there’s a hurricane. People might skip their vacation one year, but they go back years later and are excited to do so.”
Anna Karnowski is a great example of this pattern.
She and eight other childhood friends had been planning to meet up this year to celebrate their 40th birthdays together. Initially they considered tropical destinations such as Mexico and Costa Rica.
Ultimately, however, the group settled on Sonoma County - not only because of the wine and the spas but also because they wanted to spend their money on a community that would benefit directly.
The ladies were planning to rent a house near downtown Sonoma, go wine tasting, dine at local restaurants, and spend a day at the spa. The excursion was expected to draw women from all over the country: Alaska, Washington, New York and Idaho, where they grew up.
“I live in New York City, and I know how important it is to support cities especially after they’ve experienced some sort of tragedy,” said Karnowski, who is looking forward to her first-ever visit to Sonoma County. “Things happen in this life, and I try never to let events influence my travel decisions in a negative way.”
Hoteliers and tour operators say they’ve seen other visitors embracing a similar attitude.
At Farmhouse Inn & Spa in Forestville, where Brown and her husband stay, co-owner Joe Bartolomei said a handful of repeat guests have redoubled efforts to come and contribute to the local economy.
Allyson Weekes, co-owner of Bohemian Highway Travel Co., a Sonoma-based outfit that offers small-group tours around different parts of the county, agrees. Many of her customers express curiosity about the fires and cite ongoing recovery efforts as one of the reasons they’ve come.
“Once guests are here, once they’re looking at the land or they’re visiting a vineyard that lost buildings and they’re talking with the woman who owns the land, they have this connection and they want to learn more,” she said. “The more our guests learn, the more satisfied they feel about their decision to come and support local businesses.”
Weekes adds that most visitors are surprised when they learn how large of a swath of the county was damaged by the fires - 130 square miles, from Geyserville in the north to Sears Point in the south.
“If you didn’t experience it, it’s hard to understand just how much total area was affected,” she said.
Of course, longtime visitors to the area have endured enough natural disasters over the years to know what to expect.
Take John Bisordi, for example. He and his family have owned a house in Guerneville since 1995 and have been coming up from their home in San Carlos (San Mateo County) for regular getaways since then. Sometimes Bisordi and his wife bring their kids and grandkids. Sometimes they just come by themselves.
Earlier this winter, when Bisordi read reports of mass flooding in the area, he postponed a trip north and waited until floodwaters receded before making the trek. By the time he and family arrived, the flooding had subsided.
“I guess you could say we were stranded in San Carlos,” he joked. “We love Sonoma County so much, it’d take a lot more than rain and fires to keep us away for long.”