The first time I went to Santa Rosa, California it was just a pop-up visit. In San Francisco on business, I rented a car for a day and drove north up Route 101 to visit my aunt in the senior-living facility she had moved into, and to see my cousin Lauren and her husband John, who live a little farther up the road near Calistoga.
The landscape of that part of California is so different from anything I’d ever seen. I remember being surprised by the tawny-yellow hills crowding the highway; being surprised by how many cars there were on the multi-lane highway in the midst of what looked like nothing.
Several years later, I went back for a longer visit and also to do a little exploring. On my list: the petrified forest in Calistoga, plant scientist Luther Burbank’s home and gardens, and a tour of Alexander Valley Vineyards, John’s family’s business.
As I drove north of my cousin’s house to the vineyard, I felt a sense of homecoming to a place I’d never been before. The hills settled down a bit, but more than that the tidy rows of grapevines ranging up and down the low hills charmed me. Unlike the vast commercial farms I’ve seen where corn, wheat, soybeans, and even tomatoes are grown, these vineyards had a smallish, homey look to them.
After the wine tour I walked on up a hill to explore the small, walled cemetery I’d noticed as I wound up the drive. I found the grave markers of Cyrus Alexander and members of his family. Alexander, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1805, purchased the land around 1845. John’s father, Harry Wetzel, purchased the property in 1961 to start a vineyard. Harry and his wife Maggie are now also buried in the family plot.
The next time I saw Santa Rosa it was on the nightly news, with horrific footage of wildfires tearing through the city. In the middle of the night, my cousin and her husband fled; there was no time to stop and think about taking anything. My cousin didn’t even grab her handbag.
For the next several weeks Lauren and John lived in a state of anxiety, hanging on every bit of news as the winds blew the fires first one way, then the other, then back again, bringing flames closer and closer to their property. The family vineyards, too, lay in the line of fire. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, they were allowed to return. Thankfully, while in need of extensive clean-up, the house was not touched. The vineyards, too, escaped harm, as did most in the region.
Amid all the angst, destruction, and outright terror that Santa Rosa residents and Sonoma Valley vintners experienced, it turns out that the vineyards themselves may have kept the fires from being even worse than they were. In an online article I came across by Geoffrey Mohan, a reporter for the LA Times, I learned that there was a huge difference in how the fires affected the acres of wildlands, and how they affected the acres of vineyards. (http://lat.ms/2ykpQY1)
As one example, the article pointed to Napa’s Signorello Estate: the buildings burned to the ground, but the acres of grapevines survived. Another vintner described seeing how the fire had stopped abruptly at the edge of the vineyards “as if you drew a line in the grass.”
It makes sense: the vineyards were relatively free of debris and the vines themselves were full of moisture. Without dry plant litter on the ground or dry tree bark to latch on to, the fires couldn’t take hold. Of course, some of the protection had to do with acreage and the proximity of the vineyards to buildings. But I like the thought that these carefully cultivated rows of vines staunchly held the line.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Share your gardening stories on Facebook at “Chester County Roots.” And check out Pam’s new book for children and families: Big Life Lessons from Nature’s Little Secrets. Available at amazon.com.