December 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Wine Country Tourism Picks Up After Fires

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
 

North Coast, Calif.—Media reporting and images may have left many with the impression that Sonoma and Napa wine country was laid to waste by October firestorms, but only weeks later, a different picture emerged. Tourists returned to hotels and tasting rooms, welcomed by staff eager to see business return to normal.

“We were profoundly affected in terms of traffic,” Christopher O’Gorman, director of communications for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, told Wines & Vines. The winery’s vineyards were unscathed, and 95% of the fruit was already harvested, but the winemaker’s house was destroyed in the blaze.

O’Gorman provided some tasting room statistics for the popular 900,000-case destination next to Highway 101 in Windsor, Calif.

The weekend prior to the fires, some 600 people visited. The winery closed Oct. 10-11; when it reopened Oct. 12 (a Thursday), 62 people came in. The first full weekend the fires were contained, Rodney Strong recorded 260 visitors.

Kosta-Browne Wines in Sebastopol, Calif., is open by appointment. The 18,000-case winery and vineyards remain intact. Still, deep loss remains: Co-founder Dan Kosta’s home in Santa Rosa was destroyed, and he’s now living in a fifth-wheel trailer near the winery.

Normally welcoming only one or two groups on weekend days, the fires didn’t change sales much, Kosta said, although some people did cancel their scheduled trips: Traffic was impassible while residents evacuated and emergency responders arrived.

Up to $38 million in tasting room losses
Jon Moramarco, managing partner of bw166, estimates the fires caused tasting rooms to lose between $19 million and $38 million in sales. He said an additional $50 million to $100 million revenue will be lost by wineries that need to be rebuilt as a result of the firestorm.

When 100,000-case Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg reopened Oct. 13, there was almost no traffic, said Sara Rathman, director of marketing and communications. Dry Creek hosts numerous large groups and destination weddings, scheduled long in advance.

“We did what we could for them. We tried to help them reorganize their trips. We’re trying to make the best of it,” Rathman said. Around Oct. 21, business started picking up, and by the weekend of Oct. 24, winery loyalists from the Bay Area flooded in, trying to support business. By the numbers, normally booming October tasting room traffic was down 35%, and revenue was down about 18%, she reported. “It’s not how it was, but we’re seeing improvement. We are welcoming them and trying to show them a good time.”

Dry Creek has a strong social media presence, and its promotion benefits other area wineries. “We were really lucky to have wholesale distribution,” Rathman commented. Looking on the bright side, “The tasting room is less crowded. We’re really positive. People coming are happy to be here.”

Cline Cellars is a 250,000-case winery in Sonoma Carneros, a quick hop from San Francisco. “We were beyond fortunate. Harvest was 90% complete, but the fires impacted everyone significantly,” said Christine Lilienthal, marketing director.

Cline’s direct-to-consumer sales staff reported a great weekend Nov. 11-12, nevertheless, Cline lost about a month of tasting room business. “The best way to support the winery is to visit or order online,” Lilienthal said.

Crossing the county line
Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, reported that tourism the first week of October was “very good, as it normally is. Then things dropped dramatically down.”

Most people who had planned visits canceled their reservations, but some who were already in the valley stayed, including at least one hardy couple from Texas, which has seen its own share of disasters recently.

Visit Napa Valley tracked hotel occupancy and revenue, and many local hotels hosted evacuees. The Meritage in southern Napa charged evacuees $99 per night, including three meals.

Starting about Oct. 20, figures started to edge up, and that trend continued into early November. “The first Sunday (of November) showed higher occupancy than last year,” Gregory said.

In downtown Napa, Napa River Inn hosted evacuees and first responders, said general manager Sara Brooks. Still connected to power and the internet, the hotel opened its doors to locals left without ways to communicate.

“We had people using our internet for seven or eight days. No one traveled. Pretty much all reservations canceled,” Brooks recalled. Year on year, occupancy was down 10% to 15%. Brooks predicted that should be fully recovered by February or March.

Allied businesses were also affected by the fires. Platypus Wine Tours, which has been leading Napa and Sonoma tours for about 13 years, suffered a huge downturn during the fires: about 60% of its business vs. last year, according to director of sales and marketing Jenny Toomer.

People either canceled reservations or did not book tours, and Platypus drivers also suffered income loss. One said he’d worked only three days out of three weeks, which cost him about $2,500. The company set up a crowdfunding page for employees. One former guest donated $5,000.

Cancellations have eased, and people want to support the wineries and the industry, Toomer said, adding: “The best thing is to get visitors.”

 
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