By Barbara Barrielle
Sonoma County wine country has been hit twice by massive fires in the space of three years. The first, on October 8, 2017, was an unexpected frenzy that caused unfathomable damage, took thousands of structures and many lives, displaced countless families, and uprooted the wine business in both Napa and Sonoma counties.
In 2019, the recent Kincade Fire was equally ferocious but the damage, while still tragic, was minimized by evacuating the communities of Healdsburg, Windsor and much of Sonoma County. Firefighters were left to defend the land and structures, thereby minimizing destruction without having to worry about human life.
In the media, however, the story was covered with intensely and images of fire with the words Healdsburg, Sonoma County, and Wine County emblazoned across the headlines. Wine Country was again on fire. With the 2017 fires becoming a memory and business getting close to back to normal, the wine industry did not need another reason to discourage visitors.
Soda Rock and Fieldstone wineries burned to the ground and there was a bit of smoke damage, but by the weekend following the fires, the sky was blue and the sun was bright, but hotel and lodging reservations were cancelled, the popular Food and Wine Affair postponed, and winery events throughout the area were put off. Maybe there was power but no gas or maybe the wineries had no issues at all.
Soda Rock met the challenge head on. Once route 128 and Alexander Valley opened and people were probably going to be travelling to check out the damages, the winery set up a temporary tasting bar. They invited the public to come see what they lost but also what they had not. The wines were good, the spirits were up, and everyone was safe.
Emeritus Winery in the Russian River Valley was one of the first wineries to reinstate tasting activities. As Winery President Mari Jones said, “by Thursday, our staff was ready to come back to work. It’s been slow but we are happy to be hosting people.” The weekend remained slow but steady with customers expressing their appreciation to be back and tasting.
“Our wines are the best they have ever been. The 2017 vintage is amazing, and we are tasting 2016-2017 and 2018 is looking great. 2019 was all in barrel before the fires started.” Jones’ positive attitude and her feelings that Emeritus, an 8,500-case winery, is part of a larger economic system to get people to come back to Sonoma County and see the community is strong and the wines are excellent.
Wendy Hildreth, executive director of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers (RRVW), says that they were assessing the potential damage to wineries in what they refer to as the eastern hills of the Russian River Valley where Christopher Creek, Merriam, and Viszlay wineries may have had smoke or crop damage. “We definitely have an uphill battle to put aside notions that this county has had two major fires and that the landscape is not completely charred.”
Hildreth was part of a meeting of directors of the major wine regions and Sonoma County tourism that addressed the issues they are all facing. They came up with a social media hashtag, #GatherinSonoma, that is being spread by all of the close-knit AVA and tourism groups. “Our challenge is how to present the story, and we are doing this together; we are building our community back together.” For example, the RRVW is taking the Russian River wines story on the road less and encouraging people to come to the area with the popular August Paulee Dinner and the resurrection in Grape-to-Glass in June.
Bannister Wines in Alexander Valley sell direct to consumer through appointment tastings and during open houses and parties they throw in the community. When forced to cancel a major open house scheduled for Saturday, October 26th they lost a significant amount of sales at a time when gearing up for the holidays is important. Winemaker Brooke Bannister hopes to reschedule the event in the next couple weeks, reminiscent of two years ago when they also had to reschedule to same type of gathering.
Bannister evacuated that Saturday but by Monday, he and others were back in Alexander Valley within days making sure there was no damage and putting out spot fires. His childhood friend, Jake Hawkes, winemaker at Hawkes and Carpenter, had an even greater challenge as he defended vineyards, winery and tasting room.
Alexander Valley Vineyards was closed for the weekend but proudly posted a photo on Facebook as soon as they opened which featured visitors from around the world showing up with their support.
In Dry Creek Valley, longtime winemaking family, the Pedroncellis, usually have a thriving weekend tasting room business and, while this weekend would have been busier than ever with the Wine Road’s Food and Wine Affair, Julie Pedroncelli said, “we typically see over 125 people at this time of year and only saw about 30 – so we’ll rebuild slowly.”
Ann Peterson, executive director of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, and also part of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, said that between the meetings of the AVA associations and local Chambers, said that their mission is how to get loyal consumers back. “Come to lunch, come on by and taste some wines. You’ve got to be here or you are missing out. Total FOMO,” says Peterson.
She points to differences between 2019 and 2017. First, the hotels are not full and there are plenty of places to stay. People can get here and they can see there is little damage. The wines are good. She says it is not a time to discount the region and its amenities but to look at adding value.
Peterson points out that we may have some tourists react as they did in 2017 when other wine regions became more popular and attracted crowds that might have normally visited Sonoma or Napa.
In addition to the associations’ joint campaign to shore up winery business and visitation, the wine community has already organized several opportunities for giving to support those most impacted by the Kincade Fire, including the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation relaunching its Wildfire Recovery Fund to support ag employees and their families impacted by the fires.
“Our community is incredibly resilient when we stand together,” says George Christie, President of Wine Industry Network, “and it’s encouraging to see how quickly the wine and tourism associations have come together with the #GatherInSonoma campaign to address the challenging aftermath of the fire narrative, which hurt our industry much in the months following the Tubbs Fire.”
To support the wine industry coming together as a community and preparing for next year Wine Industry Network invites all North Coast wine industry professionals to attend the WIN Expo trade show on December 5th at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds for free by registering with the promo code: GatherInSonoma.