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Napa and Sonoma recover from fires: California wine country is open for business

SONOMA – It’s a Friday night in this historic, beautiful town north of San Francisco. A large family is strolling past the brilliantly lit trees and centuries-old mission in the city’s handsome central square. They ooh and aah at the thousands of gleaming white Christmas lights that climb the trunk of a towering, graceful palm tree and spread out along its leafy fronds. Around the corner the popular restaurant The Girl and The Fig is hopping, with beautiful people dining on fresh, local cheeses, locally caught seafood and leafy greens harvested from the bounty of the Sonoma Valley.

A few hours earlier I had strolled along the Napa River and watched as dozens of folks enjoyed lunch on a sunny patio at the Napa General Store at the Historic Napa Mill, a beautiful collection of shops and restaurants in an historic property in downtown Napa. I also sampled luscious California wines at properties in both the Napa and Sonoma valleys and stayed the night at a posh, Mediterranean-style resort at the edge of a Napa vineyard.

You can drive around the beautiful Sonoma and Napa valleys and find evidence of the recent fires that sparked headlines around the world. But my recent weekend visit also shows that the restaurants, wineries and attractions in the region are functioning on pretty much all cylinders.

Sonoma and Napa are open for business. And eager to welcome customers.

The Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, California. JIM BYERS PHOTO

My wife and I last weekend had the pleasure of staying the night at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, a Mediterranean-styled spot on the south end of town with easy access to San Francisco and the Bay Area. We had a beautiful room with soft autumn tones, a huge headboard, a mini-fridge and a large bathroom, as well as a big balcony with a table and chairs that overlooked the swimming pool, the Trinitas Cellars estate wine cave and rows of colourful vineyards. We also took in breakfast the next day; with steel-cut oatmeal, a huge portion of eggs and a beautiful bowl of fresh fruit.

Trinitas makes more than two dozen wines, including lovely, fruity Chardonnays and a series of striking, single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. They also make a wonderful Cabernet Franc, which they label as CABERNET FRANCis in an homage to Pope Francis.

Winery worker Veronica Jakab, who grew up in both Napa and Toronto, told us that winery owner and loyal Catholic Tim Busch had an audience with the Pope a few years ago and gave him a bottle of the special wine. The Pope had some at his lunch that day and asked his emissaries to get a few more bottles from Busch. Jakab said Busch had given away all the other 11 bottles he had brought to Rome and had to scramble like crazy to get four of them back so he wouldn’t disappoint His Holiness.

I also got to try some wonderful wines at Paradise Ridge in the Sonoma Valley. Paradise Ridge lost its estate winery facilities, including its production facilities, during one of the Sonoma fires. But their small tasting room in the town of Kenwood was open for business on the weekend and filled with friendly locals, giving the place a bit of a Cheers meets California Wine Country feel.

The Napa General Store is a great place to shop or have a meal. JIM BYERS PHOTO

I walked into the place just as one of the workers was talking about how serving bad wine would condemn a person to seven years of bad sex, which made me immediately love the place.

The winery has insurance to cover some of the damages but they face a daunting task to rebuild what they had. Still, it didn’t stop the workers from serving their customers with smiles on their faces on the day after Thanksgiving.

“We’ll just keep going forward and doing what we do, which is sell wine and make people happy,” one worker told me.

The Girl and The Fig in Sonoma serves up wonderful local cheese and other great items. JIM BYERS PHOTO

That night we drove down to the town of Sonoma for dinner at the renowned The Girl and the Fig . We sampled a trio of fresh, creamy local cheeses, including a cow’s milk cheese from Bleating Heart Dairy that was called “Death and Taxes,” as it’s washed with “Death and Taxes” black lager from Moonlight Brewing Co.
We had a very good duck confit with butter beans and a fantastic shrimp dish with parmesan risotto, Brussels sprouts and a yummy lobster veloute. Even better was the smiling, helpful service and wine pairings from our server, Megan.

It was as a fine way to top off a whirlwind tour of the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. And a tasty reminder that they’re both open for business.

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