A Prayer for Healdsburg: Wine Country During the Height of the Fires

I first visited Healdsburg in 2009, the same year I moved to California. I’d heard rumblings in the food world that there was a funky little town with a restaurant called Cyrus, helmed by a chef named Douglas Keane, that had the audacity to challenge French Laundry for the wine country fine dining throne. I’d heard the bartender there, Scott Beattie, was doing things with fresh ingredients that no one had ever seen. I’d also heard that if I called for a reservation, there was a chance I could get in.

So I saved up my money and took my girlfriend (now wife) for a night out. We were in our twenties and had zero fine dining experience and only vaguely nice clothes. And we were nervous, mostly because there was a bread cart, and I’d never seen a cart solely designed to supply you with bread. But that meal remains lodged in the memory card of my mind as the finest of my life.

After dinner, stuffed from the baker’s dozen rolls I’d consumed, we walked downtown around the beautiful plaza and marveled at the town. Originally settled in the 1850s by a man from Ohio named Harmon Heald, gold miners and other glory seekers soon came to realize that pretty much anything grew in the land surrounding Heald’s settlement, and the town was incorporated as a city in 1867. It was mostly agricultural, especially after Prohibition, and known for its prunes (!!) until the latter part of the twentieth century, when the digestive majesty that were the prune groves were replaced with grape vines. 

By the time I first came in 2009, the city was well on its way to building a reputation as Napa Valley’s slightly hipper wine country alternative, with more casual, smaller wineries, and a slew of hotels and farm-to-table restaurants and craft cocktail bars and boutiques, all of which simultaneously arrived at the same conclusion I had: Healdsburg was the place to be. But now, as I write this, there is a real chance that town will have to start over again anew.

The fire currently burning out of control in Sonoma County is called the Kincade Fire. It started on Wednesday, and the 30,000 acre blaze has forced “unprecedented” evacuations: as of this writing, of nearly 200,000 people. It has destroyed the Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg, a family owned winery with buildings that date back to 1869, which was painstakingly restored in 2000 by Ken and Diane Wilson. Healdsburg’s Field Stone winery was also demolished. Some emergency shelters set up to house displaced residents have had to be evacuated themselves. In an effort to prevent even more fires and avoid further liability, Pacific Gas & Electric, the real life Cruella de Vil character for most residents of NorCal, has shut off power for nearly two million residents. They said these shutdowns could last up to a week. As of right now, the fire is just 15% contained.

As a resident of the county directly below Sonoma, I’m part of these blackouts, which have become a de rigeur part of life up here. Falls are spent in a panicky fever dream of refreshed weather reports, praying that a random rain shower will temper the Fire Gods. When the fires inevitably break out, we refresh the San Francisco Chronicle’s Fire Tracker, and head to grocery stores and hardware stores and pharmacies to queue up for batteries and ice and crank powered charges and flashlights.

In these crises you stick to your same patterns if only to combat the dread that comes with the seeming randomness and the speed of the fires, which makes everyone here feel like they are one particularly intense Santa Ana wind away from losing a home. And the lack of phone service makes it hard to really know. Two nights ago, under the spell of several counties’ worth of blackout darkness, I woke up at 4:30am to the sound of several coyotes yelping all at once. Even they seemed confused.

Throughout the week leading up to the fires, I’d been up in Sonoma and Napa counties, researching and reporting a story on the food scene there, and the signs and scars from the 2017 Wine Country fires are everywhere: billboards in Glen Ellen thanking first responders for saving their town. Discounts offered to firemen at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in Napa. This is not some distant memory, but in fact a very recent event that many people are still digging themselves out from under. For these sort of tragedies to repeat themselves so soon seems cosmically inappropriate, a karmic faux pas. But here we are.

I was last in Healdsburg two days before the fire started. It was a beautiful day, as these most dangerous ones often are, and I wandered past folks happily digging into Pain Perdu dripping with Vermont maple syrup at Karl and Nancy Seppi’s Costeaux French Bakery, which has been a bakery in Healdsburg since 1923. I saw the twinkling patio lights at Bravas Bar de Tapas, from Mark and Terri Stark, watched folks playing bocce and tucking into fennel salami pizzas at Campo Fina, and then I walked past the restaurant that used to be Cyrus. It’s called Chalkboard now, and is very much in the vein of the fine casual dining craze of the past decade. 

Perhaps I was daydreaming about Cyrus and that meal, because as I passed Chalkboard I nearly collided into a man in his sixties walking a dog.

“Excuse me,” I stammered, embarrassed, but he shrugged it off and patted my shoulder. “No, you’re good,” he said. “We’re both good.”

I hope he’s right.

Author's Note: The story was written on October 27th, as the Kincade Fire bore down on the town of Healdsburg and threatened to overtake it. Thankfully, since then, the hard work of the firefighters and other first responders have, as of this update on October 31, mostly managed to contain the fire without extensive damage to the city. We encourage you to visit the town and support local businesses there as soon as safely possible.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End, was published in July by Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.