The devastating wildfires that hit the North Coast at the tail end of harvest not only burned thousands of homes, but also damaged wineries and sent many more scrambling to secure their facilities and crops while fires advanced and power and roads shut down.
California’s mutual aid system was activated with Governor Brown’s declaration of emergency bringing first responders, firefighters, police, and the national guard from all over the state to the North Coast to help fight the fires and save lives. Meanwhile, wine associations from across California rallied, building on their informal network to offer help for their colleagues impacted by the wildfires.
“Everyone wanted to help,” says Kim Stemler, Executive Director, Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association. “In the first week, the focus was on getting the immediate things they needed up there. If they ran out of generators to pump water to fight the fires, we’d all put out the word through our personal and work networks as well as our social media networks, and we were able to get them some generators. We’ve also had wineries throughout the state offer to go finish harvest for people, they’ve offered to help wherever they can.”
Ann Petersen, Executive Director, Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, who had to evacuate her own home in Santa Rosa (though it was spared by the fire), was on the ground coordinating with vintners groups and wineries to identify needs and sharing resources.
“Over 300 individuals, companies, wineries and businesses signed up with resources to help,” says Petersen, as an example Flanagan Vineyards helped St. Francis Winery with tanks for their grapes as fires came perilously close to the winery.
The fires also put many wine industry workers out of jobs, and the wine association network is looking into whether other regions can absorb those vineyard workers, winery workers, and hospitality workers. “Beyond that, now we’re looking at fundraising, because what they really need now is money,” says Stemler, who is daunted by the sheer destruction of the fires and the rebuilding task ahead.
Last year, a fire in Big Sur affected the Monterey wine region, and they became very familiar with what the needs are for people in a community in this situation. “How do you rebuild 4,000 homes?” wonders Stemler, “I think we lost 56, and it’s been so much work. It’s not only buildings, it’s water systems, power, and infrastructure, and they’re still not all replaced yet, and it’s been a year. It takes so long.”
Stemler credits the Livermore and Paso Robles associations for starting the fundraising and setting up programs where they are donating portions of their proceeds. “We just copied them,” she says, but adds that the associations combining their fundraising drive under the CAWineStrong tag has increased the strength and reach of the effort. “Now we have a CAWineStrong – Japan, and we’re setting up a CAWineStrong – Utah and CAWineStrong – Florida, so by having this unified effort, we’re engaging other states and other countries. I don’t think that would have happened if it was just one of us.”
CAWineStrong raises money through direct donations on the website, which are then donated to the community foundations of the impacted counties, but it’s also a fundraising effort under the umbrella of the CAwinestrong tag which allows groups to be creative in how they raise money for fire relief. “Some of us are organizing our own events, for example, in Monterey we’re doing an event on October 29th, and we’re partnering with the hospitality association to raise money, and then we’re encouraging people to go visit these partner businesses.”
Further examples include, The Steven Kent Winery who is donating $1 of all bottle sales through end of October and Sbragia Family Vineyards donating $20 from each bottle of 2014 La Promessa Zinfandel they sell. Other wine industry businesses have also stepped up to help raise funds for CAWineStrong with the Harvest Challenge competition donating entry proceeds and the Wine Industry Network donating $20 of every ticket sold to the North Coast Wine Industry Expo and one dollar for every person attending.
California’s regional wine associations have a network that operates very loosely, only meeting a few times a year and communicating intermittently to share knowledge and best practices. This lack of hierarchy and loose structure worked well during the crisis as it allowed leadership to emerge organically and fundraising efforts to be flexible and decentralized. The association directors, all of which are highly competent, pulled together quickly to address the current and anticipated needs.
“Everyone is working together, communicating more closely, and doing whatever they can to help.” Says Stemler.
“The CAWineStrong effort has had to work within the short amount of time that the crisis has the media’s attention,” explains Petersen, “unlike hurricanes where you have a warning of impending danger and time to evacuate, wildfires move quickly and leave you scrambling with a very short period of time to capture attention and drive fundraising.”
Stemler explains that there was a feeling of helplessness throughout the larger wine community and that raising money gave them something to do, they wanted to help in some tangible way,
“Even though Napa and Sonoma are two of the most influential wine regions in the world and we may be much smaller, we’re showing them that we love them and that we have their back,” says Stemler. “We’re going to support them as much as we can, and I think that’s really important, particularly for Napa, because Napa is always the leader, and I don’t know that they feel the love as much or often as they give the love.”
And that message is being received.
“It’s reassuring in times of great stress that our partners step up and help, it speaks to how strong our wine community is across California,” says Petersen.
By Kim Badenfort