THE loss of lives and destruction of homes and businesses in the Californian wine country has been terrible to watch.
We spent a month in California in 2005, most of it in the wine country, and remember the area as lush, green and rich in economy and culture.
While many of the wineries in the Sonoma and the Napa valleys have been destroyed by the fires, many are still intact.
When the regions start to rebuild, we'll be back doing our tiny part in helping the wine tourism industry on its journey to recovery.
The Napa Valley is a contained space with most of the wineries concentrated near Highway 29. The valley stretches from the south through Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St Helena and to Calistoga in the north.
We found it easy to get around and with so many of the big-name wineries on Highway 29, it was a case of pulling into an elaborate vine-flanked driveway and getting down to tasting some of the world's most coveted drops.
We visited the Robert Mondavi winery, perhaps the most popular of them all and by far the most commercial, where the cellar door was more like a department store with expensive merchandise and crowds trying to squeeze to the counter for wine tastings.
As far as I have read this week, the fires came close to the Mondavi property but it is still intact. In Yountville, we visited a small but elegant cellar door late one morning where an urbane man gave us tastings and told us about the famous French Laundry restaurant next door.
"It will cost you $175 each for lunch and that does not include wines,” he said.
"Then there is a 19 per cent service charge, eight per cent sales tax and there is no wine on their list under $150. So, expect to pay around $1000 for lunch.”
When he added "that is, if you can get a reservation,” we were relieved and found a deli instead and bought a sandwich.
What I remember most about the Napa Valley, more than the wines and the fancy restaurants, was the proliferation of spas offering mud baths.
Apparently, a mud bath is part of the Napa experience, as essential as wine tastings. Who were we not to partake despite the photos in front of the spas showing people with frightened expressions immersed up to their necks in baths of thick mud?
We were a little late for our appointment and the attendant told us our tardiness meant our time in the mud bath would have to be cut short.
We understood perfectly and it turned out to be an untold blessing because stepping into a bath of thick, gluggy green mud is not something for the weak of heart.
But we had paid our money for this Napa mud experience so we approached the baths (twin baths, it was a couple's room) with great caution. I managed to get only my toe into the greenish brown slime, but my man sunk down into the mire with a look of pure revulsion on his face.
He sat there for all a minute before terror got the better of him and he rose like a swamp creature from a deep bog, covered in blobs of green and brown goo from neck to toe.
"It was like sitting inside a cow's stomach,” he said, and with that he raced into the shower to hose off the clingy dung.
Needless to say we needed alcoholic refreshment after this experience. Thankfully, we were in the middle of a region awash with the good stuff.
California, we will be back when you begin your recovery.
Read more of Ann's musings at annrickard.com.
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