Healdsburg, California (CNN) — The newest ultra-luxury resort in California Wine Country has a yoga lawn in the middle of a vineyard, a guest-friendly apiary program, a massage with locally sourced olive oil and a special glass-enclosed dining room that is cantilevered into the middle of a 100-year-old oak tree.
Still, perhaps the most notable attribute of the new Montage Healdsburg in Sonoma County is that the 130-room resort with rates starting at $695 per night opened in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Technically, the 258-acre resort in this tiny-but-vibrant town opened earlier this month (Dec. 12). Because that date also was the start of the county's latest shelter-in-place edict, occupancy is way below what management expected, and the hotel is significantly limited to "essential" travelers only by order of the county public health officer.
When the order expires, guests will enjoy one of the most highfalutin resorts in a hotspot full of them.
Montage Healdsburg is rumored to have cost more than $300 million, and it represents the only luxury resort on the west side of the mountains that separate Napa and Sonoma. All the others -- including Meadowood, which suffered damage during a recent wildfire -- are to the east, on the Napa side.
The Healdsburg resort also will become the first Montage property in Northern California; the hotel company currently manages four other hotels in the United States (one each in California, Utah, Hawaii and South Carolina, with a fifth property under construction in Montana), as well as a resort in Mexico and one under construction in the Bahamas.
The Montage Healdsburg is a 258-acre luxury resort in Wine Country, opened as California was under shelter-in-place orders.
CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY
"For all our resorts and hotels, a sense of place is the dominant theme as it relates to what we build, how we build it, and the locale it's in," said Alan Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts. "With Healdsburg we wanted to be representative of the Wine Country, be respectful of the land and emphasize vineyards, hills, oak trees and natural beauty. I think we've accomplished that. Guests will have to come see for themselves."
Challenges of opening during pandemic
Of course, nobody at Montage ever imagined the Healdsburg property woulfd be making its debut in the middle of a global pandemic.
Since April, the leisure and hospitality industry has lost about 3.5 million jobs -- a truly staggering amount. While federal stimulus helped companies stay afloat early in the pandemic, a recent survey from the American Hotel & Lodging Association showed that nearly three-quarters of hoteliers say they likely won't survive another six months without more relief.
This conundrum certainly is on Fuerstman's mind.
In an exclusive interview with CNN Travel earlier this month, he lamented the reality of opening during this difficult time. Fuerstman added that his team has made two different series of adjustments -- one behind-the-scenes that applies only to employees and another for guests.
The first adjustment was tactical: Instead of having all-staff pep rallies and orientation, General Manager Allen Highfield and his staff postponed the rallies and broke down these preliminary interactions into small-group masked and socially distanced settings, sometimes even masked one-on-ones. Fuerstman said this required a bit of a leap of faith, since most of the staff had never done early-stage planning any other way.
"A hotel like this is built for generations to come," he said. "It's not about a flashy grand opening or the things that would typically accompany the opening of a resort like this. We're focused on providing as safe of an experience as we can and adapting as the environment changes."
The lobby of the Montage Healdsburg
CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY
The second adjustment has meant educating guests about how and where they can have an authentic Montage experience during this time. Specifically, Fuerstman said his staff is showing guests how the hotel's precautions can protect them from exposure to Covid-19. Some of those precautions are incredibly simple. Because no building at the resort is more than two stories tall, guests don't have to worry about elevators.
Fuerstman added that since every room has a private entrance, guests have been turning to room service dining in a big way -- and liking it as an alternative.
"Health and safety is our No. 1 concern," Fuerstman said.
Lay of the land
The newest Montage sits in the northernmost part of Healdsburg, a town of roughly 11,000 people. Healdsburg has become a mainstay on just about every "Best Places to Live" list. It is, without question, the hottest destination in all of Wine Country.
Rooms at Montage Healdsburg are laid out campus-style, with individual units lining a secluded bowl in which the main building sits at the center. Most guest rooms are approximately 650 square feet, and each has its own private patio. Artwork from local artists will be displayed on the walls.
There are 34 suites of varying sizes. The largest accommodation, The Guest House, is more than 4,600 square feet and boasts three bedrooms, a private patio and a private hot tub.
An outdoor shower reflects the openness of the Montage Healdsburg resort.
CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY
The main lodge, with jaw-dropping views of Mount St. Helena to the east, comprises the main lobby, two restaurants, meeting space, a general store, a bar and an open-air patio with bocce and other diversions. Nearby, a separate building houses the local chapter of Paintbox, the Montage kids' club.
Because the resort was built on previously untrammeled land, Highfield said Montage wanted to create a vibe that would celebrate the surrounding landscape. The result is a design that blends with and shows off the scenic beauty of Sonoma County.
In the main lodge, for instance, guests dine at Hazel Hill, a "terroir-to-table" restaurant that overlooks the resort's vineyard, dozens upon dozens of oak trees, and some of the picturesque hills of the 2,000-acre Jordan Winery estate.
One section of the restaurant -- a private dining area -- is cantilevered out into an ancient oak. A wall of Scout Field Bar in the lobby has windows that fold away to let the outside in.
Guests can enjoy similarly spectacular views from the zero-edge pool at the 11,500-square-foot spa; looking out on the grandeur, you feel like you've surfaced at an oasis in the wilderness.
Even getting around the property is relaxed. Nothing is more than five minutes from anything else, and guests drop their vehicles at the main valet upon check-in and walk or use golf carts to navigate the resort from there.
Hazel Hill, a "terroir-to-table" restaurant that in the main building of the Montage Healdsburg, overlooks the resort's vineyard
CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY
"It really is a great place to come and completely unplug," Highfield said.
The vineyard is managed by Jesse Katz, a rising star in the wine world who is the owner of Aperture Cellars on the other side of Healdsburg and recently was named as Wine Spectrum's 2020 Winemaker of the Year.
Katz also masterminded one bottle of a 2015 cabernet sauvignon/cabernet franc blend that sold at a high-end charity auction for $350,000 in 2017, still an industry record for a 750-milliliter bottle.
Once the local shelter-in-place order expires, and when the resort can welcome guests with open arms, GM Highfield said it is likely to launch several much-anticipated guest programs.
Fittingly, the first revolves around wine, and Katz.
The 36-year-old vintner plans to use grapes from the property to make estate wines only available on site (and, potentially, at other Montage properties). He expects to conduct regular talks and tastings with guests on-site. Katz has been consulting on the project for years and said the opportunity to grow grapes on 14 acres in the middle of the Alexander Valley is unique.
"There aren't a lot of projects of this size that would let me go no-holds-barred on quality and attention to detail and let me do what I want from viticulture to winemaking," he said, noting that some blocks of vineyard are planted so densely that crews will have to pick the vines by hand, instead of with a tractor.
The resort also has partnered with Sonoma County Bee Company (SCBC), a local apiary management firm, to run its five-hive bee program developed to produce honey for the restaurants and wax for the spa.
As part of this relationship, SCBC founder Candice Koseba will make regular visits to the resort to give demonstrations to interested guests. Koseba said most of her talks will spotlight a log hive -- a special type of hive in a hollowed-out log. Guests won't be able to work with bees, but this particular log hive will have a Plexiglas wall so visitors can see what the bees are doing inside.
"It will be a fascinating perspective, for sure," Koseba said. "Not many people get to see inside a hive."
The resort also has partnered with Sonoma County Bee Company to offer guest demonstrations.
Christian Horan Photography
Montage Healdsburg also soon will roll out a two-pronged bicycle program, a beloved amenity for a resort in the middle of what local gearheads call "Ride Country." The resort offers e-bikes for amateur riders and road bikes from Scott Bikes for guests who are passionate about road biking. There's even an on-site bike technician to make sure all the gear keeps running smoothly.
Highfield said he's "excited" to get the resort up and running at full speed, but also understands that at least for now, with Covid-19 case numbers on the rise across California, there's only so much that he and his team can do.
"We look forward to being a safe place of comfort and a respite for our community, neighbors and beyond when the time is right," he said.
Journey to the big time
To be clear, the resort's origin story isn't without hiccups or controversy.
Fuerstman first visited the site in 2005, and the project began in earnest five years after that. Construction has been going strong since early 2018, despite a series of problems.
Some of the problems have been regulatory in nature. Earlier this month, the site developer received a fine of $6.4 million -- the highest fee in the history of the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area -- for environmental violations tied to hotel construction during the winter of late 2018 and early 2019.
The 38 violations put forward by regulators included inadequate erosion control measures documented over several months by water quality investigators. Prosecutors said nearly 9.4 million gallons of prohibited runoff and sediment-filled stormwater escaped the construction site and into streams of the Russian River watershed.
Though the fine wasn't levied against Montage, it still raised local eyebrows about the brand's commitment to the future.
Other problems have been political in nature. The project, once referred to locally as Saggio Hills, has been met with indefatigable skepticism from a small-but-vocal group of locals who wonder how Montage clientele who are paying up to $1,000 per night can and will contribute positively to the local economy.
Former Healdsburg Mayor Brigette Mansell has been one of the staunchest critics.
Never shy to share an opinion, Mansell has hammered social media sites with concerns about how the new resort helps the people of Healdsburg, many of whom can barely afford to live in their hometown.
"I am less worried and more committed to vigilance," she wrote in a recent email statement. "I know the project's history and the negotiated terms. Because of these ultra-luxury resorts, the wealth necessitates social responsibility."
When asked about this criticism, Fuerstman insisted the resort is doing everything it can to keep locals front-of-mind.
Specifically, he cited the fact that many resort employees live in and around Healdsburg and noted that the hotel has strived to establish relationships with local restaurateurs, winemakers and artisans to extend and amplify the Healdsburg vibe into every guest room. Two examples: Flying Goat Coffee, roasted in Healdsburg, will be the house brew; and trail mix from the Girl & The Fig restaurant in Sonoma will be available for purchase across the property.
"We believe a great resort needs to be the centerpiece of a community and not an outlier," Fuerstman said. "My view of success is when every local feels they're a part of the resort, and they show it off to friends and visitors with great pride."
Tallia Hart, CEO of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, tried to put the opening into perspective from which everyone could benefit.
"We are fortunate to have a Montage in our community," she said. "This is an amazing property that will contribute to the economic vitality of Healdsburg. The Montage is a world class brand that will employ several hundred individuals that support the local economy in a variety of ways. We are pleased to have them as a partner and look forward to having them be part of our beautiful town."