By Jenny Peters
Over 500 people gathered in a gorgeous sun-dappled vineyard that straddled the line between Napa and Sonoma counties on November 21, 2017, to have a convivial lunch together. It was a celebration and a fundraiser, created by Visit California in partnership with Outstanding in the Field to give thanks (a few days before Thanksgiving) at the “Grateful Table” to the First Responders and others who helped bring the two top wine valleys in America through the Atlas, Tubbs, Patrick and Nuns fires, which all started on October 8.
Those fires together burned more than 100,000 acres, destroyed 8,920 homes and other structures and took 43 lives, together one of the worst fire incidents in Northern California history.
But despite some blackened hillsides in the distance, everything was incredible at the Grateful Table, as Chef Tyler Florence hosted the $500 per plate celebration – with 100 percent of the proceeds going to fire recovery efforts in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties as well as the California Restaurant Association Foundation.
“These are our neighbors that are affected,” Florence explained. “They’re not just strangers. I live in Corte Madera, and our neighbors, our associates, our friends, their houses were burning down. It was the scariest thing I have ever witnessed.
“We fed 150 firefighters in Marin County. We just started cooking like crazy when it happened. Then once it was over, I felt like there had to be some moment, specifically before the holidays, to remind everyone about what happened here. Recovery is still going on and I wanted to have an important event, I wanted to raise some money and more importantly, I wanted people to get together, see each other and begin to heal.”
And get together they did, as Florence was joined by many of the top chefs in NoCal, including Jason Fox, Tanya Holland, Ari Weiswasser, Josh Evans, Tony Ferrari, Duskie Estes and John Stewart, Ken Frank, Travis Westrope, Dustin Valette, Mark and Terri Stark, Roland Passot, Chris Cosentino, Matt Accarrino, Ryan Hill, Steve Litke and Daniel Capra, of Paula LeDuc Fine Catering.
Along with Outstanding in the Field (the national company that stages unique outdoor parties), the chefs created a late-lunch early Thanksgiving menu that wowed the happy crowd. From squash soup filled with Thai flavors to Sonoma turkey, Superior Farms lamb, butternut squash risotto and a sticky fig cake in a jar for dessert, the meal was a reminder of just how incredible the food is in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Of course, there was wine, ranging from J Vineyards, Korbel and Chandon sparkling to Groth Chardonnay, Benzinger Sauvignon Blanc, Rodney Strong Pinot Noir and many more from both the Sonoma and Napa valleys.
And both those valleys are fully ready to welcome visitors again. We spent a night at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, still an elegant place to lay your head in Sonoma, had an exemplary meal at Glen Ellen Star and visited the Buena Vista Winery, where top wines are still being poured in their historic buildings. Wineries were open for business in Napa as well, as we wandered through Yountville and sipped some Silver Trident wines at their pretty tasting room there.
At the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, we checked out the Trinitas Cellars cave tasting room tucked into the vineyards that surround the resort and then paired their wines with an Italian-influenced dinner at Siena, the resort’s fine dining spot. Looking across the dappled hills covered with grapevines turning red as they go into their winter hibernation, it’s hard to tell that those fires actually happened.
But the “Thank You First Responders” signs hung throughout both valleys are a reminder, as are some burned hills and tree lines (Buena Vista Winery has char just above its tasting rooms, in fact); gratefulness is a major theme in these valleys as the holiday season arrives, as Tyler Florence reminds us.
“We all just went through a really horrific experience together, but we’re really grateful for what we have,” he says. “We are fortunate enough to live in a really beautiful part of the country and nothing is going to stop us, nothing is going to hold us back. This community is going to pull together stronger than ever and we want everyone to know we are ready to welcome visitors back, right now.”