I am a long way from home.
The plan was to pack up our lives and experiment with generational living on the east coast. Riding out the pandemic surrounded by family, my kids could focus on remote work and my grandchildren could go to school in a classroom. All of us with enough space to spread out along the eastern seaboard.
We secured winter rentals and were on our way. Two SUVs loaded to the gills with two young children with iPads, a dog, two parents working throughout the journey, a grandmother and surfboards attached to the roof.
With little time for goodbyes as our departure collided with the August flames, we headed east on Highway 80 followed by smoke and falling ash. Forty years of living a dream life in Sonoma County — grief rising with each passing mile of the 48-hour road trip.
Eight hours of driving a day during a pandemic for six long days. Booking hotel rooms as we went, in reputable chains that followed strict COVID safety standards. Dinner was our only luxury in outdoor restaurants. Sometimes we were fortunate to find ones where the kids and dog could play. In North Platte, Nebraska a beer and pizza pub had acres of lawn with soccer goals. We scored. Sonoma County wines were on the menu.
From California to Wyoming, Nebraska to New Hampshire heart palpitations lessened, our breathing began to relax — the thin line between sanity and losing oneself to fear and uncertainty eased. Resilience. Once the wheels beneath us stopped, we came up for air.
Feeling gratitude for this New England autumn, it is hard to fully embrace the magnificence of the season without sharing it with my Sonoma County community, as I have done for the past 40 years. So I reached out to winegrower friends eager for news of the 2020 harvest.
From all, I heard different versions of peril. The 113-degree spike when grapes suffered from dehydration. Effects of the pandemic on harvest crews, and severe damage of smoke taint from fires reported to be the largest in the history of California.
The following insights from winegrower friends tell more of the story.
Parke Hafner, winemaker at his family’s Hafner Vineyard: “When I began my winemaking career in 1980, all I had to worry about was the weather, which meant the occasional rain before or during harvest. In recent years, the challenges have grown to include regulations and compliance, labor issues, wildfires, power shutoffs and now a pandemic. This harvest exemplifies those challenges. We all wear masks and practice social distancing, but masks get in the way when tasting wine. Our vineyard yields were down this year, but I am very excited about the wine quality. And yes, I think the job is still fun.”
Kevin Barr, co-owner of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management: “At the end of the day we’re farmers. The wine industry is more glamorous than other crops, but this year has humbled us. We’re trying to get through as economically as possible with help from our friends and family. I’ll always remember 2020 as a year when I needed to get back to my roots. I’m optimistic that we’ll raise some great grapes and get through.”
Despite extreme conditions, the underscoring message I heard was one of unity, of hope, of deep-rooted respect that Sonoma County grape growers have for each other and the land. I was heartened by stories of neighbors sharing equipment, skills, helping hands no matter the time of night or severity of the emergency. Unconditional, hands and hearts reaching across all divides to bring in the crop.
Surrounded by trees, leaves of brilliant reds, yellows and flaming oranges of autumn that define this New Hampshire coastline, I miss the absolute best thing about our Sonoma County wine country: the people.