By Timothy Rawles
Sonoma Valley is rising from the ashes to reclaim its tourism pride. Known for its rolling, lush hills, Mediterranean microclimate, and culinary arts, Sonoma Valley is one of those destinations where blood pressures immediately decrease once you pass the city marker.
Located in Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley rests inland against Napa Valley to the east and 50 miles from San Francisco to the south. There probably isn’t a more relaxing or more beautiful drive in any direction through the California landscape than that of Sonoma.
However, that environment was severely assaulted by wildfires both in 2017 and 2020; some of the worst in California history. The devastation took not only lives but property, severely altering some of the picturesque skylines. “Like many places that have gone through earthquakes or hurricanes or any natural disaster, Sonoma Valley has weathered the fires and come out with a renewed civic vigor to prepare as well as forward-thinking resilience strategies,” says Jennifer Sweeney, a public relations and communications consultant for Sonoma Valley.
Those strategies couldn’t prevent the 2020 global pandemic however, which put California on lockdown, striking another blow to Sonoma’s once-bustling tourism industry.
Sweeney says the lifeline that kept Sonoma fresh in the minds of people who were eager to return once the pandemic was over was far-reaching.
“We’ve had to find creative ways to showcase Sonoma Valley that required a total community effort,” she explains. “At the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, we upped our engagement on social media and supported our hospitality businesses through virtual events and one-on-one video interviews with business owners to keep the destination top of mind.” And those businesses, especially the wineries, are the very backbone of Sonoma Valley tourism.
The Benziger Family Winery has graced the Sonoma landscape for many years. Nestled in the heart of Sonoma Valley’s bucolic serenity, the winery is the epitome of the area’s devotion to family, grape horticulture and wine making.
Chris Benziger is not only a part of the estate’s bloodline, he is also its brand ambassador. Which means public representation of the company and, in essence, keeping its family crest well-polished is a full-time responsibility.
But sadly for Benziger the recent infernos “hit close to home, literally! My family lost our home,” he said. “The amazing part is that this great community rallied around those that needed help and got us back on our feet, better than before!”
As for most of the wineries in the area, not only was the scenery tainted but so were the grapevines. Vintners were left trying to figure out how to save their flavorful lifeblood.
Benziger says 2020 was a difficult year in that regard. “We had to leave some of our grapes on the vine that were too far gone, but we got most in and used our 40-plus years of wine-making experience to minimize the effects.” He said, although the exact science of how they did it remains a secret. “The 2020 white wines that we are now releasing are proof that harvest was not a complete disaster. Our spring whites and roses are delightful with no hint of smoke.”
Now that the smoke has settled and the pandemic is easing its restrictions on travel, Sonoma Valley is experiencing a re-growth. Travelers are finding their footing after a bumpy 2020 and although foreign travel is still unstable as summer approaches, domestic staycations are becoming more and more popular, especially with the LGBTQ community. And being so close to San Francisco, Sonoma is just arm’s length away from outdoor relief.
Although there isn’t a wholly dedicated space for LGBTQ people in Sonoma, the City is proud of its intangible inclusion.
Sonoma Valley embodies the welcoming and open spirit for travelers and has had a fairly robust LGBT community. It is just an hour from San Francisco, an iconic city for LGBT travelers and residents.”Jennifer Sweeney
The Valley is also home to Out at the Vineyard Gay Wine Weekend, an annual event which brings the community together for wine tasting and local excursions. Sweeney adds, “Sonoma County Pride will be back in 2021 with a month-long series of events around the theme ‘Beyond the Rainbow: Surviving, Reviving and Thriving.’”
Benziger also supports the LGBTQ community: “We have a wonderfully big and diverse family of friends and employees,” he said. “We take pride in offering a welcoming experience to all our guests.”
Benziger may have inadvertently described Sonoma when explaining what people will experience when they visit his property: “Delicious wines, stunning vineyard views and our signature welcoming experiences, currently all hosted in a more intimate setting.”
Sweeney says we can expect the same Wine Country hospitality we are accustomed to — from hotels to restaurants to wineries to local retail businesses. There is also a Sonoma Valley Safe initiative in place which requires visitors to wear masks and stay six feet apart, “about the length of six Sonoma wine bottles between parties,” says Sweeney.
Timothy Rawles is the editor-in-chief of Gaycation Magazine