Winemakers, residents celebrate harvest in Sonoma a year after devastating wildfires

It's harvest time in wine country, and that means festival time, too. 

Friday evening, Sonoma kicked off its 121st Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival with a gala and silent auction. This weekend, as many as 10,000 people will flock to the town plaza for art, wine, food, and live music. 

This year, the festival celebrates the crop and acknowledges a challenging year. 

"Saturday,10 am, at the blessing of the grapes, we will be honoring the first responders," said festival President Maria Toimil, reflecting on how last year's event was followed a week later by devastating North Bay wildfires. 

The Sonoma Plaza downtown and neighborhoods to the north and east were evacuated for days as the Nuns fire raged. 

The loss of more than 200 homes in the Sonoma hills and neighboring Glen Ellen is still deeply felt.

"All around us there was terrible destruction," said Sonoma Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti. “And a huge response trying to save the town because the Mission and all the buildings are more than 100 years old." 

The Vintage Festival has its roots generations ago, when a handful of winemakers would meet to celebrate the crush. The event has grown and changed as the industry has. But amid the tourists, it's still an annual gathering where locals reunite. 

The weekend schedule features grape stomping contests, a firefighter water fight, 5k and 12k races, and a parade of lights Saturday night. 

"It's simple, it's not fancy, but I tell you, it's fun!" said the mayor. 

Just a few miles from the plaza, grapes are coming off the vine. Harvest was slowed by a dip in summer temperatures that stalled the ripening of the fruit, but picking and processing are now at a steady pace.    

"It's looking good, it's looking very even and balanced, and we're excited with the Chardonnay that's coming in right now," said Rob Bundschu of Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma.   

Scorched hills just a few hundred yards the fields and tasting room are a daily reminder of last season's tumultuous harvest.

"The very first night it came across the mountain and threatened our winery," said Bundschu, "and then with all the chaos going on, our team had to keep making wine through all of it, the evacuations and roadblocks, but the fruit had to come in." 

Like their founders, local vintners persevered.

Gundlach Bundschu was founded in 1858, even before the Vintage Festival.

"It's a big celebration this year, because people are coming off the effects a year later," said Bundschu. “And things are starting to feel like normal again." 

Many Sonomans remember the fires as a terrible time that brought out the good in people. "Our restaurants were feeding people at two in the morning," said Mayor Agrimonti. “And our tourists were evacuated and running around, so the restaurants fed evacuees the next day, plus a steady supply of donuts and coffee, and I was so proud of Sonoma."  

The fire was halted short of city limits, unlike Santa Rosa to the west, where it leveled entire neighborhoods.

"My daughter lost her home in Coffey Park, and my other daughter is a paramedic who evacuated hospitals that night," said Toimil. “So it was a very emotional time for us, and seeing my daughter's home being rebuilt now is exciting." 

Festival President Toimil hopes this weekend's celebration will continue to help the community heal.

"It just shows that we can move from one event to the next, and whatever happens, we're going to pull up our boot straps and move forward." 

The Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival is free, except for wine-tasting tickets and entry fees to the grape-stomping contests. 

Festival proceeds will benefit more than a dozen local non-profit organizations. 

Next weekend, Santa Rosa holds its annual wine festival and competition – the Harvest Fair – at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. 

The devastating fires began the evening of Sunday Oct. 8, 2017.